As the longtime executive director of the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Mike McCabe witnessed the growing influence of money in politics, which he says forces both parties to chase campaign contributions and ignore the true needs of voters. Since leaving the organization, McCabe wrote Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politicsfor the “politically homeless” who’ve been left behind. McCabe writes that these disaffected voters have more in common than they realize and can work together to force at least one political party to represent their interests, not those of big donors. McCabe spoke with the Shepherd about the two parties’ Achilles heels, why people seem to vote against their own interests and Gov. Scott Walker’s place in our current political era.
Shepherd: In your book, you come out swinging against both parties, saying they’re both failing their supporters. Was there a time when the two-party system worked or totally failed?
McCabe: For much of my life I think the parties were serving the public reasonably well but we have now reached the point where both parties are failing us. I think you have to probably go back to the end of the 19th century to find truly comparable conditions where both parties were really failing the country. It’s rare when both parties are in such sorry shape.
There have been times in much more recent history when one party or the other had sort of fallen on hard times and was really disconnected from the people. You take the McCarthy era, for example. Wisconsin was a one-party state. The Democrats actually had fewer members in the Legislature than they do today. And then some young Turks grabbed the party by the scruff of the neck and got it to change its ways and Wisconsin became a two-party state again.
Shepherd: What’s the tipping point that forces a political party to reinvent itself?
McCabe: History teaches us that political change—landscape-altering change—tends to come with trauma. A lot of times the most profound political changes come on the heels of economic depressions. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the progressive movement came on the heels of an economic depression. Of course the Great Depression had a lot to do with why we saw all of the New Deal reforms. But there have been instances where simply a total loss of power and a fall from grace by a political party has led to some innovation and invention or reinvention within a party.
Shepherd: In Blue Jeans in High Places, you write that the Democratic Party has a branding problem: It’s seen as being the party of government at a time when the government itself isn’t popular. Do you think anyone in the Democratic Party understands that?
McCabe: Not in the upper echelons of the party’s leadership. There is a huge canyon that exists between grassroots Democrats, particularly in the rural parts of our state, and the state party establishment.
One of the things that strikes me is that my dad used to talk about how the Republicans were the party of the rich and the Democrats were the party of the poor. He grew up during the Depression. He was a dairy farmer with an eighth-grade education and the way that he looked at it was that the Democrats were the party of the little guy and the Republicans were the party of the big bosses.
When you think about it today, if you asked people to describe the Republican Party, they’ll say it’s the party for less government and lower taxes. And if you ask what the Democratic Party is, they’ll say it’s the party of government and higher taxes. And so the Democrats really are being defined by the Republicans’ definition. If the Democrats are going to be successful they need to get back to defining themselves. They need to, in word and deed and I think particularly through action, demonstrate that they are truly the party of commoners.
Shepherd: You point out in your book that the only time the Democrats have gone out on a limb was when Walker threatened the unions with his gutting of collective bargaining rights.
McCabe: People who aren’t government workers and don’t belong to unions notice that. It’s pretty clear to them that the Democrats will really fight when government workers’ interests are threatened. But then they think, what are you doing for us? I don’t see you putting in that same effort for our interests.
I get asked a lot by people here in Madison to explain people in places like where I grew up. Clark County is bright red and is electing Republicans and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people say, explain these people to me. It seems like they’re stupid and they’re voting against their own interests. What I try to remind them is that places like Clark County were sending Democrats to the Capitol to represent them when I was a kid, liberal Democrats. And my hometown of Curtiss had the distinction last November of giving Scott Walker his biggest margin of victory of any community in the state. Scott Walker won 90% of the vote in Curtiss. People don’t understand that but to me the calculus is very simple. They figure if government is not going to work for us, if it’s not going to be on our side, then let’s keep it as small as possible.
Shepherd: Now, on to the Republicans. You have plenty of warnings for them about the perils of being captured by the Koch brothers.
McCabe: One of the things I said in the book several times and in my presentations is that we’ve got one party that’s scary and another that’s scared. I think people can come up with a lot of reasons why they think the Republican Party is becoming increasingly scary. But for me it’s as simple as the fact that the Republican Party used to be the party of Lincoln, the party of Teddy Roosevelt, the party of Dwight Eisenhower, it used to be the party that was dedicated to creating opportunity for all. And it’s now a party devoted to serving the rich.
It can get scarier and scarier and scarier because there isn’t an alternative vision being offered by the Democrats. The condition of the Republican Party is not only the handiwork of the Koch family or the Walton family or the other royals of American society. It’s also the doing of the Democratic Party.
Shepherd: Have you ever seen a time when money was not corrupting?
McCabe: I think there are always those in society who would like to corrupt the political process. There will always be people who would like to use their wealth to bend the public policy in their favor. But for a very long time those kinds of forces were kept at bay. Their ability to influence the process was muted. Today the money is playing a dominant role. It controls everything. There’s always been money in politics but it hasn’t always been the only political currency that mattered.
Shepherd: Where do you see Scott Walker fitting into our era of politics?
McCabe: He’s exactly the kind of politician that you would expect to be in power in a new Gilded Age. He is very comfortable with doing the bidding of incredibly wealthy interests. He is unashamed about doing their bidding. He made his peace with that corruption a long time ago and is very comfortable with the fundamentally corrupt way that the people’s business is being done now. He’s not the cause of all of this. He is simply a symptom of the disease. He is the natural byproduct of what the corruption of our political system will produce.
Shepherd: You suggest taking over a political party so that at least one party is responsive to we, the people. How would that happen?
McCabe: I confess that I started thinking about all of this because of the tea party movement. When I first started looking at the tea party the first thing that came to mind was that it’s not a party at all. That’s just a brand that is being used to take over a party. But I don’t think that citizens can make change exactly the same way that the tea party has. Because the tea party is not a grassroots movement. The tea party is pure Astroturf. The tea party was planned and launched with the enormous support of the Koch brothers and other such interests. Ordinary citizens aren’t billionaires.
I got to thinking if a couple of billionaires could do this using this basic strategy of coming up with a new brand and using it to force a party to change its ways, couldn’t ordinary citizens use that same strategy for a much more public-spirited purpose? The Koch brothers did it for very selfish interests. They wanted to make the Republican Party more subservient to their interests. They succeeded. The Republican Party is now much more subservient to the wealthy than it was previously. So I thought, couldn’t citizens use the same strategy? As I looked back through history I found that ordinary citizens had done that in the past. The trick will be to adapt this strategy to current conditions to try to make change.
Shepherd: What should the politically homeless do?
McCabe: People have to regain faith in the idea that all politics is local. That’s such a common phrase. But people have really lost faith in that. They need to take to heart the idea that all politics is local. And start at that local level and build community organizations. The ideas behind Blue Jean Nation can be a useful tool in helping them to reach neighbors who currently would tune them out because of the labels that they have embraced and because of the vocabulary they use and the way that they talk and act.
So what I’m suggesting is that instead of going out to places like Clark County and presenting yourself as a Democrat or a liberal or a progressive we’ve got to find a new vocabulary that allows some conversations to occur that can help us eventually find common ground. It seemed that every time landscape-altering change came to America the first step that people took was shedding old labels and fashioning themselves a new identity. They used that as a tool to force change within the political system. That’s what I’m suggesting that people try again today.