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When the protests in Wisconsin erupted over the winter I remember having an exchange with Athenae. She had been holding her breath every single day because she was sure at any moment it would fall apart. There was good reason to believe that! Despite their unprecedented size the protests were informally but widely boycotted by corporate media. (Curiously, media outlets owned by multinationals tend to not have very robust coverage of union and labor issues.) There were the usual strategies to discredit the movement – including the heretofore reliable tactic of telling a whopping lie, getting the wingnuts to jump all over it and turning it into a zombie lie.

That’s how we are used to seeing it happen. There was no reason to think it wouldn’t, just like there was no reason to think the protests would keep going strong day after day after day, or that fourteen state Democrats would show more spine and initiative over the course of a few weeks than…well let’s not go there.

Yet somehow, the script got flipped. All the things that weren’t supposed to happen did, and all the things that were supposed to happen didn’t. The protests kept up and became the catalyst for a remarkable recall effort. On Tuesday recall supporters helped usher in a clean sweep of a Republican dirty trick effort, and there is a real chance that they will actually switch control of the Senate. It is a truly astonishing feat.

The leadership of local representatives and the ability of activists to achieve tangible, substantial results so quickly stands in stark contrast to the situation at the national level. Too few politicians in the capitol have been willing to wage sustained, vigorous and public fights on behalf of the middle class, and activists have had a terrible time attempting to shift policy from its current wealth-privileging position.

That has led to deep frustration with even those who are nominal allies on the left. My own Congressional representative (Tim Ryan) and one of my Senators (Sherrod Brown) say some very nice things, very stirring populist things about the importance of standing up for working families. Hell, the president says lots of nice things. However nice individual politicians may seem, what’s come out of DC for the last generation has been largely hostile to anyone who is not independently wealthy.

Free trade agreements like NAFTA have not protected the rights of workers or the environment, initiatives like the Employee Free Choice Act languish, and there has been a general apathy towards stagnating wages and worsening conditions. For several decades now it has mostly been one long losing streak in DC for regular workers. (There have been recent signs of life at the NLRB, though.)

Wisconsin has been different, and that inspired Van Jones and Move On to create what they call the American Dream Movement (ADM). There will be house parties launching the initiative this weekend (find one near you!) and it will attempt to harness that energy on a wider scale. Based on what I have observed in Wisconsin and participated in here in Ohio, there are a few things I think are critical for success.

The first is a direct and relatively immediate goal. Having a reward for activists is a big deal, and Wisconsin leveraged that brilliantly. Pissed off about the budget repair bill? Get signatures, make phone calls, get the recalls lined up, and just a few months later take your shot at flipping the Senate. Do the work and you get to go in the booth and vote on it. A big reward, relatively quickly.

Same in Ohio. Don’t like SB 5? Get signatures, make phone calls, get the citizen veto on the ballot. If we work like hell through the summer and fall we can spike the damn thing in November. A big reward, relatively quickly.

I hope the ADM tries for a similar dynamic. It’s hard to sustain enthusiasm for a movement that lacks that. Protesting at a big bank because it got a huge bailout or pays no taxes may be a satisfying way to vent some anger, but the remedy for that is in Washington. You know, the place the banks own. Directing all the gathering energy there seems like a good way to dissipate it.

One lesson of Wisconsin is that state and local efforts may prove more fruitful, and that using direct measures like referendums, recalls and ballot initiatives may be the last, best way for a frustrated citizenry to rouse its inert government to action.

Another lesson is that coalition building works. If you want an early clue to see how effective the ADM will be, see if it is partnering with unions, other activist groups and locally supportive officials to accomplish its goals. If it is largely working on its own, that’s probably a bad sign.

The most important lesson is this, though: Politicians work for us, we don’t work for them. Identifying issues that for whatever reason are not being addressed, and forcing them on the political system, could fairly radically re-orient our representatives’ approach. It’s tremendously powerful for citizens to join together and say “this is what we are working on. Pitch in if you’d like, we’d love the support and be grateful for it, but we’re doing this with or without your help.”

Working on issue advocacy puts the emphasis where it belongs – on policy, not personalities. Those who would be leaders will only be regarded as such to the extent that they are willing to affirmatively work on behalf of those whose support they seek. For too long Democrats have identified themselves first as not-Republicans, the party that would prevent those villains on the right from putting their master plans into effect. That is a negative ruling vision, one that emphasizes what won’t happen. The ADM shows the craving for a positive message, one that says: this is what we are working for, this is what we want to do – not just what we want to prevent.

I’m sure in most cases it is too late for direct measures for this November’s ballot. It will be interesting to see what the plans are for next year, though. At the moment I’m far more inclined to put my time, effort and money into a ballot effort for a middle-class friendly policy than I am to try to help elect a politician. Will the ADM prioritize initiatives? And what kind of policy prescriptions might be good candidates for such an effort?

Here is just one possibility: A 15% state income tax beginning at $1 million per year. Taxing the wealthy is broadly popular, would be very easy to write, and could be coupled with a promise by candidates to use the money to restore funding currently being slashed from state budgets. There are a lot of selling points. I’ll even throw out a few slogans (not mine – I heard them elsewhere): Taxes fight fires. Taxes teach children. Taxes patrol the streets.

Giving citizens the opportunity to gather signatures for something like that, and seeing the fruits of their labor by the time the next election rolls around, is a great incentive. The ADM can and probably will have many different parts to it, but I hope direct democracy is one of the big ones. Wisconsin showed that there is a tremendous desire for civic engagement, and that desire has been largely frustrated by a federal government unresponsive to public sentiment.

That desire is still there though, bottled up and more urgent than ever in the midst of a jobs crisis. People want to get busy, and the ADM could very well position itself as an outlet. In the absence of strong leadership from elected representatives, citizens might just create a largely self-organized and organic alternative. One way or another, though, the leadership void will be filled. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Move On’s event locator may be found here.