Sometimes wisdom can take the shape of knowing when to step aside and let another’s insightful knowledge lead the way. We here at Wisdom Voices have decided to do just that with our August Progressive Profile. Mike McCabe will be resigning his position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign at the end of the year to take on the challenge of helping us literally save our democracy. His new book Blue Jeans In High Places: The Coming Makeover Of American Politics, set for release in September, is the launching pad for this new venture. We were fortunate enough to have featured Mike as one of our first Progressive Profiles back in 2011. We recently connected with him to talk about the reasons why he chose to leave his current position, what the book represents, and his hope for the future. It is a rare opportunity to meet and interview someone whose so skillfully and clearly articulates a problem and its solution. We hope you will be as inspired as we were as you read Mike’s thoughts of where we’ve been, where we are, and how we need to positively move forward. Click here for more information on how to order Blue Jeans in High Places.
“You know the old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. In a lot of ways, many of us have been engaging in what is by definition, insanity. Our democracy is increasingly troubled, yet we somehow expect a different outcome even though we’re doing the same things over and over. I finally had to come to terms with that reality. I believe passionately in the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and its work, but I looked at my own role and said, I could do the same thing that I had been doing for 15 years. I could track the money; I could help citizens follow the money trail; I could fight for reform. But no matter how many times I took that agenda up the steps of the state capitol (in Madison, Wisconsin)…if there’s nobody inside that Capitol who’s going to greet us at the door and fight for that agenda; we’re still blocked.
“Fighting for campaign finance reform is still important and this organization is a very valuable asset to the people of Wisconsin. Money in politics is a cancer growing in the body of democracy. We can try to treat the cancer or we can actually try to imagine and develop a cure. I don’t think just diagnosing the cancer will make it go away. And I began to believe marching up the steps with a reform agenda wasn’t going to cure the cancer. My experience is that when the Democrats were in control in 2009-2010 (in Wisconsin) they chose not to do anything about it. When the Republicans took charge, they injected steroids into the cancer cell. The conclusion I reached was that it’s not enough to have reform advocacy; it’s not enough to have reform activists. You need a party committed to reconnecting with the people and putting citizens back into the driver’s seat. You have to have at least one party committed to the words of Bob La Follette: ‘The will of the people is the law of the land.’ We don’t currently have a party committed to that ideal. What that means is we have to create one; that is fundamentally an undertaking of citizens – not political leaders.
“I came to the conclusion that this is a moment that cries out for some political game changers. Over the last few years, I had opportunities to speak to incredibly diverse groups across the state. And I had some remarkable conversations that got me thinking in new directions. That’s what ultimately inspired me to write this book, which I hope can plant some seeds that grow into a new movement aimed at building housing for the politically homeless and transforming political parties that are currently failing us. I believe I have one last good crusade in me, and I hope that this book can turn into that.
“The book describes how our political culture has created a condition that boils down to having one party that’s scary and another party that’s scared. The two parties are failing us in different ways, but they are failing us nonetheless. We are at the highest level in nearly three quarters of century of people not identifying with either party. To me that screams out for political invention.”
“The prescription offered in the book is how we need to break free of how we’ve been conditioned to talk about politics. For example, we’ve been trained to think of politics horizontally, who’s on the left, who’s on the right, who’s in the middle. If you flip that horizontal spectrum on its head and think vertically and think of who’s on top and who’s on the bottom; who has the most power and who has the least; whose voice is the strongest and whose is the most muted – a really magical thing happens.
“I write about a man living in Clarke County (Wisconsin) where I grew up. It’s one of the poorest counties in the state. He’s also a Republican and he’s conservative. Scott Walker won Clark County by over 30 percentage points (in 2010). Now look at a woman living in Milwaukee County. Chances are she’s African-American and more than likely low income and she’s a liberal Democrat. On a horizontal level they are totally opposite. They are divided and conquered by the way we think and talk about politics. When you flip that and think vertically, those two people are in the exact same spot.
Not A Third Party, But A “First Party”
“We’re needlessly dividing people who should be united. The book is about how we can start thinking about politics in a new way that enables us to get out of the traps that have been set for us. I think that we’ve fallen into patterns of behavior that leave us dispirited and powerless. This is a moment that cries out for political invention and innovation and even cries out for a new vocabulary. We need to tech ourselves how to think and talk about politics differently than how we’ve been conditioned.
“Ultimately we need (and what I talk about in the book) a First Party Movement, which is very different from a Third Party Movement. We have grown disillusioned with the two major parties. We’ve had dalliances with independent or third party candidates; all have disappointed. Ultimately we end up holding our noses and voting or withdraw and throw up our hands. That’s the condition that is the most concerning. We are living through the politics of resignation. What I’m suggesting is that there’s another option that has proven powerful in the past and one we’ve forgotten. The goal is fundamentally very different than a third party movement. With a first party movement the goal is to have one party that’s worth a damn. The strategies and the means that are employed to achieve success are very different. The book provides a blue print of how to launch a First Party movement and what has to happen. It aims at offering a way out of the trap we are in. There is no shortage of writing and speaking on how messed up the system is. What I wanted to do is take my best shot at offering a way out. The book provides practical ways, tools, and mechanisms to offer citizens a way back into the driver’s seat.
Connecting Historical Dots
“I think hope can be found in our own history – especially in Wisconsin. The people of our state faced remarkably similar conditions to what we face today. The same is true nationally. The challenges, the threats to democracy are eerily reminiscent to the threats in the late 1800s. Born out of that crisis was a movement that proved landscape altering; it changed American politics fundamentally and it had roots right here in Wisconsin. One of the things we overlook is Bob La Follette and the growth of the Progressive Movement. We forget t one of the first things La Follette did and one of the most important steps he took was to change his political identity. He was a Republican and he came to believe that his party had become corrupt. The first step he took was to renounce his party identity. He created a new identity; he stopped calling himself a Republican and he started calling himself a Progressive. Eventually you had Teddy Roosevelt running as a Progressive on the Republican ticket and some years later Woodrow Wilson ran as a Progressive on the Democratic ticket. Mainstream politicians in both parties felt they had no choice but to embrace this party and the accompanying agenda because that’s where the people were.
“I think the revolutionary step he took was in renouncing his old political identity and embracing his new one. And I think we’ve reached a moment that is crying out for a new political identity. We can take comfort from and draw inspiration from our own history. These conditions have been faced before and people rose up against the Koch Brothers and the (Sam) Waltons of their time. They were able to overcome those forces and there are lesson we can draw from that. We don’t face anything today that is too big for us, or any threat that can’t be overcome. We need to put some of that political currency back into circulation.
“Remember, this (formation of a new party) happened once before in the history of Wisconsin – in the time of slavery. The two major parties were the Democrats and the Whigs. And then a bunch of people in 1854 went into a little schoolhouse (in Ripon) as Democrats and Whigs and some even called themselves Free Soilers and they came out of that schoolhouse calling themselves Republicans. Both Democrats and Whigs were pro-slavery and there was a growing abolitionist movement that felt it wasn’t given representation in either major party and so they established a new identity. Eventually the system compressed back into two parties to where a generation later, Bob La Follette thought the Republican Party had become corrupt. They were being legally bribed and he established a new identity and really transformed both parties. Today we have a moment that cries out to us to do the same thing.
“Our challenge as citizens is not to look for saviors. Our job as citizens is to create the conditions that leave mainstream politicians like Harry Reid and John Boehner no choice but to behave more like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Our job as citizens is to bring Bernie and Warren (now on the fringes of their parties) squarely into the mainstream. That happened in the late 1890s and Bob La Follette was central to that. He was a great progressive leader, but he never became president. Teddy Roosevelt became president as a Republican; Woodrow Wilson became president as a Democrat. They both ended up embracing the progressive agenda because they realized that they had no choice. And that’s what has to be replicated today.
The Third Stage Of ‘Ownership’
“Today we’re at what I call the third stage of ownership that has been designed by the ruling class. At the founding of our nation, ownership was crass and brutal – it was literally slavery. It took decades of struggle and civil war to bring an end to that first stage of ownership. And of course the ruling class had no interest of giving up that control. So they designed a second stage of ownership; they designed Jim Crow. It was a whole fabric made of laws designed to keep people separate and the ruling class in power. And it too took decades of struggle to bring an end to the second stage of ownership. There are still remnants of the second stage. I point to voter ID and voter suppression as example of a second stage tool being used today to prevent people from exercising their rights. For the most part, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act – all the great civil rights legislation—for the most part demolished the second stage of ownership. But again, the ruling class had no intention of surrendering control or relinquishing power.
“I don’t think that it was a coincidence that at the end of the Civil Rights Movement, the last piece of civil rights legislation was the adoption of Title IX in 1973 that in 1976 the Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that money is speech. And to me that marked the construction of the third stage of ownership and the third stage has been designed to keep a few in control and the rest of us under their thumbs. Slowly but surely that’s what’s been created and eventually extended by Citizens United and by McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission. We need to become intimately familiar with the design of this stage because it’s our job as citizens to demolish it.
“I hoped my book could help connect a whole series of dots and help us think our way out of the traps that have ensnared us. We have to understand the design of the mechanism of control that the ruling class is using to keep us under their thumbs. It starts with fully understanding what they’ve done to us and imagining how we can counter that.
“What gives me hope is that at every stage of ownership people have found ways to overcome these mechanisms of control. Each time citizens have asserted themselves the ruling case has then designed new mechanism of control. They will never gladly relinquish power or control. This is an ongoing battle, but one that can be won. Citizens can emerge victorious. That doesn’t mean the ruling class won’t imagine new ways to subvert democracy. Democracy is a living thing; it constantly has to be tended and fed or it will die. History teaches us we can win greater democracy if we’re smarter about it and understand the mechanisms of control and fight like crazy and put our hearts and souls into it, we can prevail. The third stage of ownership will eventually find its way into the trash bin of history. It’s a matter of how quickly we can mobilize to bring that day to pass.”