Dems should be the party of "Unite and Prosper" as GOP continues "Divide and Conquer"

November 23, 2018

Democrats in Wisconsin just won statewide office elections to provide a check and balance of power to an even more Republican Legislature. What now? Even in these early days, GOP leadership (Robin Vos in the Assembly and Scott Fitzgerald in the Senate) are looking to pursue a "slash and burn" approach to state government and the Executive Branch. They are proposing to use a "lame duck" session of the Legislature to strip powers away from the Governor which they granted Scott Walker during his tenure. How should Democrats, especially Governor-elect Tony Evers, respond to the GOP strategy? I propose that they must change the frame and actions away from "divide and conquer" to one of "unite and prosper." If they don't, they will only reinforce the message and ideas the GOP wants to continue dominating public discourse. 


This is a continuation of the GOP "divide and conquer" approach, and it fits their cognitive frame perfectly - preservation of power based on an authoritarian/hierarchical worldview, where democracy exists to provide you personal freedom to pursue your own self-interest above all, without regard for others. Here's the problem for Democrats - the GOP "frame" is dominant, so it's very easy to fall into the cognitive trap of unconsciously repeating these ideas. Even for Democrats, or "progressives." When one repeats the dominant authoritarian ideas by speaking or acting in a manner consistent with their cognitive frame (see previous blogs for conservative frame details), you strengthen it in people's thoughts and acts (even unconsciously). Here's what Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said:


“Wisconsin chose a divided government, which may result in a slower process," Vos said in a statement released Thursday.

"Governor-elect Evers made a generous offer to work together so he should not have a problem with the legislation that may be considered," Vos added. "The reforms are intended to keep both sides at the table to reach a consensus." (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)


And here's what State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said:


"Tony Evers is going to have the most powerful veto pen in the nation," he added. "The idea that he's not going to be able to keep the Legislature in check, I think would be naive to think that. It's equal balanced government and we'll respect Tony Evers like we have any other governor."


In the very important terms of cognitive framing, here's what all of that means in the conservative authoritarian frame:


The idea of "Wisconsin chose divided government" is critical, especially when coupled with the idea of a "slower process." Remember, personal liberty and freedom to choose takes precedence over government imposition on that "freedom." Vos is simply evoking the idea that Wisconsinites freely chose this path - a divided government. Which inherently means that Evers can't just get his way and run roughshod (conservative view) over the GOP Legislature. Vos then uses Evers' own words against him - only in the conservative frame. In Vos' terms, the idea of a "generous offer" of "working together" towards "reaching consensus" means one thing: the dominant ideas represented by Republicans (small government, personal liberty, hierarchies) are the norm, "common sense." This works because Evers himself has not changed the cognitive frame - so the idea of "working together" means working in the dominant frame - that of keeping government under control, and putting private, self-interest above all!


Fitzgerald's words reinforce the above conservative idea. In fact, he's saying that the GOP Legislature has the moral high ground - to act as a check for the most "powerful veto pen in the nation." It's important to understand that this means Republicans will be acting with the moral purpose of keeping government under control, and from getting too intrusive through taxes, regulations, and impeding the private sector.


These are ideas that have been well established and dominant for decades. It is the lack of a cohesive, cognitive strategy on the part of Democrats and progressives that have allowed it to go unchallenged - giving people no other moral alternative. It is also the failure to pursue a cognitive strategy that is to blame for many Democratic leaders reinforcing, and acting on, conservative ideas. In this case, the best response in terms of words would be something like this, which establishes a progressive frame based on empathy, and undermines conservative ideas based on self-interest and authoritarian hierarchy:


"This election, the people of Wisconsin decided to vote for a future where we work together, and care for each other across the state through our democracy. We will move forward by setting aside divide and conquer politics, and reject putting self-interest over the common good. The people of Wisconsin voted for a future where we work towards unity and the common good, and prosperity for all. As your governor, these are the values I will represent on your behalf."


These ideas are critically important, because they stand as the polar opposite moral worldview which can weaken and undermine the dominant conservative frame - through unity and acting to care for others in a democracy (empathy), we can provide greater prosperity for all. These evoked ideas are the only way to undermine and weaken the ideas of divide and conquer, and pursuit of self-interest over all - and the aligned concepts of authoritarian hierarchy. Most importantly, Democrats and progressives need to act on these ideas of unity and prosperity through the common good. The incoming Evers administration would be well served to charter a bus tour across the state in the coming weeks, and call it a "Unity and Prosperity Tour" - and rally people around the ideas in bold above, encouraging them to use their voices to pass this message to their elected state legislators.


Unfortunately, the Evers response has been to reinforce the conservatively framed ideas the GOP wants to keep focus on:


“Republicans are desperate to cling to power,” Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said. “The people of Wisconsin said loud and clear last week that we want a change from this petty, divisive partisanship, and Governor-elect Evers believes Republicans should stop any and all attempts to override the will of the people and instead focus on solving the problems of this state.”


While the statement speaks of "power" and "partisanship," recall from above that Vos and the GOP have already established that their behavior and frame are the norm, "common sense." In fact, Evers has already had his conciliatory words used against him, as shown above. So they (Evers) are stuck in terms of framing at the moment. "Solving the problems of the state" means working in a conciliatory way, in the established conservative frame, with Republicans. Because in this frame, "the problems of the state" mean what the GOP considers to be problems - Evers has not re-framed this situation. In fact, the new Evers administration has made matters worse for themselves by continuing to reinforce conservative ideas in statements about potential cabinet personnel and high profile, private sector transition personnel from the previous Doyle Administration. 


Without a significant change in cognitive frame, from conservative to progressive, the incoming Evers Administration may be stalled before they even begin, in terms of providing the progressive change promised by the campaign.