Madison congressman Mark Pocan sees himself as the “legislative arm of the resistance.”
As grim as the news has been lately, as the Trump administration wages its campaign of destruction and contempt for the public, there is a persistent rebellion across the land. And that rebellion is being led by progressives.
“I see myself as the legislative arm of the resistance,” says U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, who is vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Pocan has been busy racing back and forth between Washington, D.C., and Madison, where he held a big town hall meeting on Feb. 18.
Like many other members of Congress, Pocan has been deluged with calls from people appalled by Trump, his conflict-ridden Cabinet, his gaffes, scandals and a flurry of ill-conceived executive orders, including a scary crackdown on immigrant families, during the messy first month of the administration.
Pocan says he is often asked how the huge marches and protests against Trump compare to the 2011 uprising in Wisconsin against Gov. Scott Walker, and what lessons might be learned for the national resistance.
“I think the Wisconsin experience is going to help us,” Pocan says. The biggest difference he sees between the two uprisings is that the one in Wisconsin focused mainly on Walker’s attack on public employees’ collective bargaining rights, while people today are fighting against a multipronged attack on every aspect of civil society. With so many different groups organized to resist Trump, Pocan says, “We can really build a movement instead of just having a moment.”
But we have to keep the pressure on.
One lesson of Wisconsin, where the energy of the protests flagged in the run-up to a failed recall election against Walker, is that “we have to keep giving people something to do,” Pocan says. “We have to make sure they don’t get discouraged.”
To that end, during the congressional recess, constituents are swarming Republicans’ district offices. Several Republican legislators have canceled town halls for fear of being mobbed by voters worried about plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But Pocan rejects comparisons between the resistance to Trump and the tea party, which once mobbed congressional offices to oppose the launch of the ACA.
“I think we have to make sure we don’t have a tea party movement of the left,” he said. “I want people to realize that the people are America. The people are the government, and we should not be about inaction.”
The tea party, after all, is largely responsible for the mess the nation is in — as a movement dedicated to hamstringing government and preventing elected representatives from passing laws. “I don’t want that,” Pocan says. “I want legislators to be responsive to their constituents.”
Persistent protests, legal challenges and nonstop resistance on every front is key. Most of all, people need to organize in their communities, through initiatives like Ald. Maurice Cheeks’ “Leading Locally,” to work on such issues as accessible housing, voting rights and reproductive choice.
In Madison, the same weekend Pocan had his big town hall meeting, community organizers from around the country converged for a summit on mutual aid networks organized by local activist Stephanie Rearick, with the aim of building a more just society, one neighborhood at a time.
“We think we are under the thumb of the government. But we have to realize that we are the government,” said Dana Gabina, a young activist who came to the summit straight from Standing Rock. She gestured to a whiteboard covered with descriptions of community work going on around the country — from New Jersey to St. Louis to Standing Rock — where people are creating sanctuaries, supporting restorative-justice programs and building time banks.
“Community nourishes you,” says Sarah Van Gelder, editor at large for Yes! Magazine, who attended the summit. Van Gelder has written a book called The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America, and is an ardent proponent of the idea that local activism is the key to reclaiming national politics and bringing about a more progressive future.
Meanwhile, in Washington, by standing up for a government that serves the interests of all the people, not just the very rich, Pocan and progressive colleagues are championing their constituents’ progressive values.
On issues like fair trade, raising the minimum wage and regulating the banks, Democrats must learn the lesson of the last election, says Pocan, who grew up in Kenosha, the blue-collar, former manufacturing hub. He is bothered by the Democratic Party leadership’s failure to understand or even listen to the concerns of working people in the industrial Midwest. “Those are the voters we lost that we never should have lost,” he says.
Returning the Democratic Party to its core progressive values, Pocan says, is the key to turning things around. That change will be driven from below, by community-minded activists who are deeply invested in taking care of the places where they live.
Ruth Conniff is editor in chief of The Progressive magazine.