Any lingering doubts about the nonpartisan bona fides of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the state campaign finance watchdog, should be annihilated by Mike McCabe’s new book, “Blue Jeans in High Places.”
McCabe, the group’s longtime executive director, regards both major political parties with withering contempt.
“Republicans, with their twisted knack for exalting Jesus in word and Ayn Rand in deed, are on the verge of moral bankruptcy if they have not already arrived,” he writes. “Democrats, having gone decades with nary an original thought, might as well file for intellectual bankruptcy.”
Or, as he elsewhere phrases it, “We have one party that is scary and another that is scared.”
McCabe’s book, whose themes he is leaving the Democracy Campaign to pursue, is full of such zingers. A manifesto for a populist change aimed at a national audience, it focuses largely on Wisconsin, portrayed as a fetid swamp of corruption, where lobbyists and campaign donors provide the soundtrack to which policymakers dance.
“The top 1 percent has commandeered our democracy over the past three decades,” McCabe asserts. “They’ve bought the politicians and now own our government. Which permits them to rape and pillage the country while the masses are left with an unsteady present and an even more uncertain future.”
McCabe backs up his blistering critique with his group’s research. Democrats, he notes, now get much more money from business interests than labor unions. Two-thirds of lawmakers’ donations come from outside their districts. And “virtually all voters are holding their noses when they cast a ballot.”
OK, that last point isn’t backed by empirical data.
A polemicist at heart, McCabe gives little thought and even less ink to the notion that politicians sometimes do good things for the right reasons. (Consider last session’s swift passage of a bill to allow use of an oil derived from marijuana to treat seizures in children. There was no heavy spending or special interest lobbying, just a call for action that the Legislature heeded.)
But McCabe is on firm footing in concluding that money plays too great a role in politics and many voters feel “politically homeless,” disaffected with both major parties.
“Most people,” he writes, “no longer believe they are being represented, no longer believe their voices are being heard, and no longer believe their interests are being served.”
On the bright side, “Blue Jeans in High Places” argues that the current system is unsustainable and will give rise to reform. Hence the book’s subtitle: “The Coming Makeover of American Politics.”
McCabe’s prescription is not a quixotic third party but what he calls a “first-party movement” — something, he notes, that has happened before. The Wisconsin-led Progressive movement wrought changes in both major parties around the turn of the 20th century. More recently, the tea party has proven that “the established political arrangement can be subverted from within.”
McCabe lays out an agenda of key reforms, including nonpartisan redistricting and a constitutional amendment to undo federal court rulings that opened the floodgates of special interest spending.
While electing candidates is not a main goal, McCabe sees value in challenging establishment candidates in their own primaries, as the tea party has done. He concedes this will involve raising money, which he suggests can be done by having many people give small amounts.
McCabe’s suggested symbol for this insurgent movement — one “neither elephant nor ass,” the icons of the two major parties — is blue jeans, the ubiquitous fashion of ordinary folk.
“We have it in our power to create a new political identity and an innovative vision of a bright future on a small scale in places like Wisconsin and on a grand scale throughout America,” McCabe writes. “We have it in our power to breathe life back into democracy and put blue jeans in high places.”
Now the question is: Who will heed McCabe’s call, and where will it lead?
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.