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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: -2.0° F  Fair
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Madison's left needs to look to the future
Too much liberal policy and language is archaic
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One can only imagine how it must have felt to be a Wisconsin Republican last Sunday morning when the Wisconsin State Journal headline read "State GOP Rejects Secession."

This is great. Next, the Wisconsin Republicans might just reject slavery. But wait a minute. Wasn't it the historic Republican Party that did reject slavery and secession in the first place? Isn't that why they're a viable political party today?

The GOP has a serious problem with a large part of its ranks that wants to relitigate the major issues of the 19th century, including ones that it happened to be on the right side of.

The good news for Republicans is that the party's mainstream elements seem to be reasserting control. House Speaker John Boehner has been openly critical of his own tea party caucus. And Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos produced a letter signed by almost his entire caucus urging that a resolution at the state party convention last weekend, reasserting the right of states to secede from the union, be summarily dismissed. His request was overwhelmingly approved.

Now it's time for liberals and Democrats to also rejoin the 21st century. Too much of liberal language, policy and orientation seems to me to be focused on regaining past glory or on just hanging on to what we have. Very little of the left seems eager to deal with, much less embrace, the future.

Exhibit one is The Capital Times' ad campaign. The publication likes to proclaim itself "Wisconsin's progressive newspaper." The ads that run frequently in the Wisconsin State Journal take us down a very old memory lane. With grainy photos they point out that, whether it was "Fighting Bob" La Follette warring against the "money power" in the early 20th century or courageous folks pushing back against Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, the Cap Times was there because the paper "gets Madison."

The publication does not carry history forward to 1978, when it broke its own union and hired replacement workers. I suppose claiming that "The Cap Times gets unions!" would be an unfortunate double entendre.

The obsession with La Follette by the Cap Times editors and by another publication with local roots that I otherwise respect, The Progressive, is strange. I understand that La Follette had something to do with founding The Progressive, but every publication was founded by somebody, and most of the founders have been forgotten.

It seems to me that if you just had to pick a century-old progressive movement to hitch your wagon to, it would be better if it were the Milwaukee "sewer socialists," who governed the state's largest city for half a century and delivered great infrastructure and solid public services.

La Follette represented an agrarian form of pure white Eurocentric populism that has little or no relevance to our modern urban, polyglot nation. Yet the Cap Times and Progressive editors drag poor Fighting Bob out of the grave at every conceivable opportunity. The message to young urban progressives -- if they bother to pay any attention at all -- is that these publications are hopelessly out of touch with their reality.

Then there's the language of the public employee union movement. I hated how Gov. Scott Walker demonized schoolteachers and public employees during the Act 10 debate. But the big public employee unions had helped set the stage for this for decades. The ever-grumpy, constantly complaining union leadership at AFSCME and WEAC alienated non-union taxpayers who were paying the bills. They used language that sounded like they were defending Pennsylvania coal miners in 1911 instead of office workers and teachers with very good benefits and fine working conditions in 2011. If unions want to reclaim their relevance, it would be a good thing to ban use of the word "solidarity" as well as anything that rhymes with "hey, ho" forever more.

Still, there's hope. The left has a great chance with Millennials. Twenty- and thirtysomethings are much more open to activist government and social progress than their elders. But they are not joiners, and they are especially turned off by organized politics. Millennials are more likely to identify as independents than anything else. They might be liberal but they're not necessarily Democrats, unionists or ideological lefties.

That's why a local issue like the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft matters so much. It's a distillation of past versus future. Do you "stand" (an apt word indicating rigidity) with the unionized, heavily regulated and insulated cab companies or do you flex with the new reality of the sharing economy?

It doesn't really matter in the end because technology and new attitudes will win out. You can have solidarity and you can stand with whatever you want, but you'll get washed aside in the end unless you adapt. The left would be wise to shed "Fighting Bob" and the old language of long-past struggles and to start exploring how to meet their laudable objective of a more fair society in a new age.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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