Taking democracy back
By Michael Strasburg
The Lakeland Times
(This article appeared in the newspaper’s August 5, 2016 print edition and also was posted on the paper’s website.)
The state of Wisconsin has long been a hotbed of charged political activity.
From a rich history that still echoes the anti-communist bellows of Senator Joe McCarthy and is home to the influential presidential candidate Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, to simultaneously hosting both a conservative speaker of the house and the first openly gay U.S. senator, Wisconsin has long been a profoundly political state.
The state is also responsible for keeping lifelong resident Mike McCabe in tune with both the hustle-and-bustle of Madison and the issues that affect the working class residents of Wisconsin’s rural reaches.
“I have been around state politics in Wisconsin since the early 1980s,” McCabe said. “I was raised on a dairy farm in Clark County outside the small town of Curtiss.”
McCabe’s first exposure to the inner workings of Wisconsin politics came in the early 1980s when he graduated from the UW-Madison school of journalism. McCabe worked briefly as a newspaper reporter, but he eventually became an aide to three different Republican legislators in the state assembly.
“That was really my first experience at the capitol and that was in 1981,” he said. McCabe later worked for the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, where he ran a civic education program. More recently, however, McCabe was the director of a nonpartisan watchdog group called the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign for 15 years. WDC specialized in tracking the money in state politics and shining a light on the relationships between the donors and elected officials.
“For 15 years I ran the Democracy Campaign and our goal was pretty simple. It was to make people matter more than money in politics,” McCabe said.
A little over a year ago, McCabe put that goal front and center in his life, as he stepped aside from the WDC and launched Blue Jean Nationi in April 2015.
“It’s a grassroots citizens group aimed at trying to pull people together to get regular people back in charge of our government, to get regular citizens back in the drivers seat,” McCabe said.
‘Blue Jeans in High Places’
As part of launching the civic group, McCabe published a book that outlines the core values of the movement: “Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics.”
While McCabe’s movement deals with the entirety of our nation, a fundamental part of McCabe’s political perspective is his rural Wisconsin roots.
“I’m as Wisconsin as they come,” he said. “I grew up on a dairy farm here, this has been home for me my entire life. What I learned growing up on the farm has shaped everything I’ve ever done and it shapes who I am. I can’t separate it from my upbringing.”
Early in the book, McCabe relates the story of one of his family’s neighbors, Les Sturz, who came to the McCabes’ aid when they were having a tough time harvesting crops during a very wet fall.
“He came to our aid and helped us harvest just weeks after his dad hung himself in the shed because their family was losing their farm,” McCabe explained. “The bank was foreclosing, yet he was reaching out and helping a neighbor at a time when his own family was going through trauma. He was one of my best teachers. He taught me about the importance of looking out of each other and the importance of neighbors helping neighbors. He taught me what community means.”
One of the fundamental problems McCabe sees in our current political system is the way labels are commonly thrown around that are outdated and increasingly inaccurate.
“They do a lot to divide people,” he said. “If somebody wears the label liberal and some other person wears the label conservative, they instantly see each other as enemies and often they even have a hard time talking to each other, yet what I’ve found is people who wear those labels actually have a lot more in common than they realize. They share a lot of values, they share a lot of life experiences. They have a lot in common, but these words get thrown around and have the power to divide people who could and perhaps should be united.”
As labels continue to take on meanings that politically paralyze and divide the people of this nation, we’re also seeing the general populace grow increasingly disillusioned with the two major political parties —the Democrats and Republicans.
McCabe believes these two conditions, among many others that are currently present, have created a window for significant change in our political system.
A political earthquake
As the book explains how our political lexicon has grown outdated, McCabe talks about how the political parties that represent these ideals haven’t change with the times either.
“They’re both failing us,” he said. “I write a lot about what happened in America in the past when those same conditions arose, when major parties fell out of step with the American people and grew disconnected from the masses. When political vocabulary started to fail the population it was amazing how past generations invented new identities, they invented new labels for themselves.”
In order to explain this, McCabe points out two examples from the past where America saw a major realignment of its two party system. The first instance was the birth of the Republican Party in the 19th century.
“Leading up to the Civil War you had two major parties in America, the Democratic Party and the Whig Party and people grew disillusioned with both,” McCabe said. “A couple of dozen people gathered in a one-room schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin and they emerged from that schoolhouse united in calling themselves Republicans. They discarded their old labels.”
A couple generations later, Americans again grew disillusioned with their political parties as the nation plummeted into recession and again citizens discarded old labels and began calling themselves progressives.
“The progressive movement ended up dramatically transforming both major parties, to the point where you had Teddy Roosevelt running for president as a progressive on the Republican ticket and some years later Woodrow Wilson running as a progressive on the Democratic ticket,” McCabe said.
McCabe uses these examples to illustrate the eerily similar conditions present in modern politics.
“We’re now at a point where the ranks of what I call the ‘politically homeless’ are as large as we’ve seen since at least the time of the Great Depression,” he said.
McCabe points out that most Americans refuse to identify as either Democrats or Republicans. In fact, the percentage of Americans refusing to identify with either major party is at its highest level in three-quarters of a century.
“We haven’t seen anything like this before in our lifetimes, but America has seen this before,” McCabe said.
Another common factor between now and the last time American politics had a major realignment, McCabe said, was that wealth and income inequality were at historic levels.
“You have to go back to pre-Great Depression years to find a time where there was this much economic inequality in American,” he said. “Each time economic inequality has reached the levels we see today, what soon followed was the political equivalent of an earthquake.”
McCabe believes that those conditions — the rise of economic inequality, voter alienation and dissatisfaction with the major parties — are the tremors that could precede a political earthquake, which is why he subtitled his book “the coming makeover of American politics.”
“The book is really about how we as citizens could make this change happen in a way that is constructive for our country,” he said. “It’s been done before. The original Republicans did it, the progressives of the 19th century did it, it’s happened over and over again in American history — it just hasn’t happened in our lifetimes.”
McCabe thinks the 2016 presidential election and its primary elections may be the first rumblings of such an earthquake.
“The way this presidential election has played out is a reflection of the frustration and anxiety and anger that is out there among voters,” McCabe said. “Donald Trump tapped into at that in his way and Bernie Sanders tapped into it in his way, but clearly the major party establishments have had a much harder time keeping people in line this time.”
Facing the historic lows in candidate approval ratings, McCabe says the parties have two options moving forward.
“The major parties can either adapt or perish,” he said. “They can either change their ways or they’ll splinter and disintegrate and be put out of business. The Whigs were stubborn, they refused to change when people had lost faith in them. They lost their entire norther base of support, including Abe Lincoln, and the party ended up disintegrating.”
Following the 2016 election, and even leading up to the election, it remains to be seen how the two major parties will adapt and try to capture the nation’s large — and growing — block of dissatisfied voters.
“The signs are all there,” McCabe said. “In this 2016 election it’s all happening faster than I would’ve predicted.”
Feeling the tremors of a potential “political earthquake,” McCabe established Blue Jean Nation as a means to empower working class Americans — both Democrat and Republican — who feel they have no say in the direction of their country.
McCabe believes these voters stand to gain much more by coming together in places they agree, rather than politically paralyzing themselves over issues where they differ.
“If politics is going to change I think rural Americans are going to have a big say in how that occurs,” McCabe said. “I’m spending most of my time in those areas. We’re just reaching out to people and really trying to break away from old labels and old ways of thinking and look for where we have common ground and share the same values — even among people who may be voting very differently.”
In recent months, McCabe has been traveling across the state hosting community events and leading discussions that bring dissatisfied voters together. He hopes to make a couple stops in the Northwoods, providing there is enough local interest.
“There are some people in the area interested in pulling together some sort of event or opportunity to meet in the Minocqua area and I’ve been talking to people,” McCabe said. “We’re hoping to have an event in Minocqua or thereabouts in the coming weeks or months.”
For more information on Blue Jean Nation, or to purchase McCabe’s book, visit www.bluejeannation.com.