Photo by Tim Leahy
Mike McCabe is speaking to about two-dozen mostly gray-haired people in the basement of the Ripon Public Library in Wisconsin, not far from the schoolhouse where a similarly sized group of disaffected voters gathered in 1854 to forge a new political party.
“They were politically homeless for a different reason,” McCabe explains, with the gusto of a high school history teacher. “Neither party reflected their wish for the end of slavery, so they created a new identity for themselves. They started calling themselves Republicans.”
In fact, McCabe continues, the arc of American history is dotted with moments in which ordinary people have set in motion paradigm-shattering movements in pursuit of a government that works for them.
As he sees it, the time has come again for citizens to rise up and reclaim at least one of America’s two major parties, to reinvent it as an instrument for the common good.
“Right now, one party is scary and the other is scared,” he tells the group. “The reason the scary party has become scarier is because they’ve been forced to become more subservient to the Koch brothers.”
Heads nod; his message is resonating. Everyone here knows the role played by well-heeled ideologues like industrialists David and Charles Koch, who have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into backing Republicans who support their vision of an America in which workers are kept in their place and the wholesale reliance on fossil fuels is undiminished. And they have been remarkably successful.
But McCabe, an author and activist, is in Ripon not to bash the Koch brothers or to gripe about Republicans’ sweeping electoral victories. His message is one of empowerment. When someone in the audience asks how he expects to overcome the apathy that has taken root among the electorate, he fires back: “Don’t confuse apathy with a sense of powerlessness. The question is: How do we empower the disempowered?”
McCabe has an answer for that, as well.
“We’ve got to do away with old labels that no longer serve us,” he says. “It starts by forging a new political identity, coming up with a new vocabulary, and unlearning how we’ve been conditioned to think about politics.”
McCabe has an adman’s knack for coining catchphrases and witticisms that capture long-intuited, but unarticulated, truths among disaffected voters. But he has his work cut out. Launching a political movement literally from nothing, it turns out, is every bit as difficult as it sounds.
“I’ve seen people become engaged, but I’m not sure he’s reaching beyond the people who are already active politically,” says Scott Spector, executive director of Wisconsin Progress, a nonprofit that recruits and trains progressive candidates to run in local elections. “They have a tough row to hoe in organizing the public around a set of issues.”
Kathy Cramer Walsh, a political science professor at UW-Madison, is doubtful that a group like Blue Jean Nation can convince enough people the effort is worth their time to achieve the sweeping changes McCabe speaks of.
“There is so much skepticism about everything political these days that for a movement like that to succeed, there has got to be pretty widespread buy-in,” she says. “It’s hard enough to just get people’s attention.”
But McCabe, citing the lessons of history, is undaunted: “Past generations didn’t beat organized money with money, but by introducing very provocative ideas and an ambitious agenda.”
As McCabe sees it, Blue Jean Nation is meant for people like himself who identify with the label “commoners.” Originally, in casting about for a movement symbol, he tried to think of an animal that people could rally around. But in the end blue jeans seemed a more apt way to capture the movement’s ambitious goal of inclusion.
“Everyone can connect with it as a metaphor for common folks,” he says. “It’s a symbol to unite commoners against the royalty of American politics.”
McCabe is seeking to pitch a broad tent. He’s spoken not just to local political groups but to a Rotary Club luncheon in the conservative stronghold of Waukesha County, where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker launched his Presidential campaign. He argues that the appeal of his new political movement cuts across party lines.
“I’m finding a lot of Main Street Republicans are also feeling politically homeless,” McCabe says. “They feel like their party has been stolen from them, too.”
Since BlueJeanNation.com went live in early April, McCabe has spoken to dozens of groups, from high school students to AARP members. But given his book’s rather savage critique of the Democratic Party, he was understandably nervous when the Chippewa County Democrats invited him to speak. He decided not to hold back.
“I told them that their party is failing,” he recalls. He ended up getting a standing ovation. “Since then, I’ve spoken to three dozen county Democratic Party meetings and it’s been a real eye-opener for me, because I’m telling them their party sucks. There is a canyon separating the party’s rank-and-file and the establishment.”
Blue Jean Nation is organized as a 501(c)(3), meaning it cannot endorse political candidates. It operates with a statewide network of volunteers. For the first several months, McCabe also worked as a volunteer, out of the basement of his Madison home. But recently the group’s board approved a partial salary.
In addition to its eight-seat board of directors, McCabe has pulled together a statewide organizing committee of nearly four-dozen people. Still in its start-up phase, the committee aims to become the group’s brain trust, serving as McCabe’s eyes and ears on the street, while its members return to their communities with fresh ideas for spreading the message.
Perhaps one of the group’s biggest challenges is McCabe’s desire to allow it to evolve organically, without a clear strategic plan—to go, as it were, where its members take it.
“I’m going to fight like hell to keep Blue Jean Nation focused on building collective strength rather than focus on a single issue,” he says. “We don’t need another organization to focus on another issue. We need to develop strategies to help all of us fight unconventionally.”
In June, when the Democratic Party of Wisconsin held its annual convention in Milwaukee, many of the more than 1,300 delegates in attendance carried Blue Jean Nation signs or wore Blue Jean Nation buttons, courtesy of Party Democrats from Iowa and Vernon Counties. Others wore Blue Jean Nation t-shirts that read, “Neither Elephant Nor Ass.”
At the convention, the delegates elected a new party chair, replacing the one in place during its three straight losses to Walker. Martha Laning, a fifty-two-year-old businesswoman and community activist from Sheboygan, was picked over the party establishment’s anointed candidate, Jason Rae, a political consultant from Milwaukee.
Though his group was not a major factor in driving this pick, McCabe sees it as a hopeful sign. “What just happened at the Democratic Party Convention was the first glimmer of change coming to the party,” he says. “There is a real hunger for change.”
Before spearheading his citizens’ movement, McCabe, fifty-five, was following the money trail in Wisconsin politics as executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group where he worked for fifteen years before stepping down last year.
“I got tired of looking at the political landscape, and just seeing us slide further and further into a sinkhole,” he says. “I figured I could track money another fifteen years, but I didn’t see that doing it would be enough of a game changer.”
Raised on a dairy farm in Clark County, Wisconsin, which to this day is home to more cows than people, McCabe recalls politics being a frequent topic of conversation. His father, Chuck, came up during the Depression and was shaped politically by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“My dad had an eighth grade education, but he had a long list of ways that FDR had helped him, saved his family, rescued them from the trauma of the Depression,” McCabe says. “You talk to people today and they’re at a loss to say what the Democrats have done for them.”
Today, Clark County is solidly Republican.
McCabe says the Democratic Party has been in decline his entire adult life, its last high-water mark being the Great Society years, when he was child. The party, in his view, hasn’t put forth an ambitious agenda since.
Last year, he published Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics. Drawing heavily on his upbringing in Clark County and his long career as a professional whistleblower, McCabe’s populist manifesto is scathing indictment of politics in Wisconsin and throughout the land.
But the book argues that citizens have repeatedly been able to force the major parties to change how they act. “I think the trick is to adapt those instances to modern circumstances,” he says.
It’s a trick he set out to learn. He looked to the progressive movement of the early twentieth century, which never produced a viable third party but did force both major parties to adopt progressive agendas.
“It struck me that every single time we’ve had these political transformations it started with people discarding old labels and fashioning themselves a new identity, starting with the birth of the Republican Party,” he says.
But what really lit the bulb was the Tea Party movement that, in a few short years, has had tremendous success influencing the Republican Party.
“The first thing that came to mind is, ‘That isn’t a party at all, it’s just a brand used to take over a party,’ ” he recalls. “The strategy behind it was that you could create a new brand, run candidates under that brand, and make the establishment subservient.”
But the Tea Party, notes McCabe, has from the start been funded largely by self-interested outsiders like the Koch brothers. “The Tea Party was never a spontaneous outburst of citizen discontent, it was always an Astroturf operation,” he says. “It also had the benefit of a major news network promoting it. It was very media driven.”
McCabe came to conclude that the movement’s winning strategy was surprisingly simple. “I started thinking, OK, this is a couple of billionaires, with the help of a national news network, trying to exert their will on a major party,” he says. “I thought, couldn’t ordinary citizens use the same strategy for a more public-spirited purpose?”
If Blue Jean Nation expects to mimic the Tea Party’s citizen-fed blitzkrieg by taking over the Democratic Party (McCabe won’t say which party his group will focus on, but that seems the most likely vehicle for his plan), it will need to fold rural areas into its voting bloc. Cramer Walsh says that will mean reversing the perception of Democrats as big governments spenders who don’t care about rural residents.
“There are a lot of reasons why people in small towns and rural places feel that big systems have abandoned them,” she says. “Many rural folk don’t see government as something that is ever going to help them.”
In the Parade of Lights, held in the cities of Neenah-Menasha on July 3, Blue Jean Nation was represented by a float cobbled together by one of the group’s board members and roughly fifteen other volunteers, who also passed out 2,000 informational fliers as the parade worked its way across two cities in east-central Wisconsin to Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Blue Jeans.”
“Blue Jean Nation is so new and different,” says board member Katie Schierl. “For me, it’s to get people elected who will work for the commoners.”
Schierl’s political awakening has occurred over the last year as she and other residents in the Neenah-Menasha area volunteered with local chapter of Move to Amend, a movement aimed at reversing the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed corporations to pour unlimited amounts of money into the political process.
When someone she met in that movement was surprised she didn’t know who Mike McCabe was, she got a copy of his book. “I was on board right away,” she recalls. “But that’s not to say I get all of it. It’s a big challenge to change a mindset. It isn’t clear-cut like Move to Amend is.”
Mark Taylor has the sort of eclectic political pedigree essential to McCabe’s movement. For several years in the 1960s, his father served as president of Madison’s chapter of the John Birch Society. Now Taylor is co-chair of the Vernon County Democratic Party in western Wisconsin.
In August 2014, Taylor was in La Crosse for a showing of Citizen Koch, a documentary on the Koch brothers’ political puppeteering so blistering that it was dropped after initial support by PBS, which receives major funding from David Koch. He stayed afterward to hear McCabe speak.
“The number-one thing that resonated with me is the concept of political homelessness,” Taylor says. “The Democratic Party has, in the best of circumstances, been inept and too often collaborative with the forces of oppression.”
Taylor, who also writes about state politics on his blog, The Daily Call, says many grassroots Democrats believe McCabe’s first-party strategy is the most likely way for them to wrest control from the party establishment.
“We need to do what Fighting Bob did to the Republican Party,” he says. “It’s coming down to a real critical time. Progressives and political radicals need to get active and start speaking up.”
At the meeting in Ripon, those in attendance have a lot of questions, A white-haired lady in the front row wants to know more about McCabe’s call to answer boatloads of special-interest money with provocative ideas. Specifically, she asks, “Where are we going to get these provocative ideas from?”
McCabe responds with a story. He says that if she took a drive on the dirt road that passes by the old McCabe family farm, she would see wires strung to every house and barn. Those electric lines, he explains, weren’t strung by the electric utility, which wasn’t going to take on the expense of stringing another mile of power line just so another family could light their home at night.
“It took a national effort, in the form of the Rural Electrification Act,” he says. “Go out there and you’ll have electricity, but you won’t get a cell phone signal or an Internet connection. Why isn’t anyone talking about a digital version of the Rural Electrification Act? How about universal access to cell phone signals?”
McCabe is just getting started. “Where are the voices saying we need to make education as affordable for future generations as past generations had made it for us?” He notes that Walker and the Republicans froze college tuition in Wisconsin for two years. “Where are the voices saying we’re going to do away with tuition?”
Democrats, he says, have for years been bullied by conservatives on issues regarding class. “Whenever some isolated Democrat tiptoes to the line of saying something class-conscious, Republicans blow their stack,” McCabe tells the group. “Republicans see that as a vulnerability. And instead of doubling down, the Democrats retreat.”
McCabe notes that the Republican Party has succeeded in drumming up resentments among both rural and suburban voters toward the “tax-and-spend liberals” in Madison and Milwaukee. But, he says, “A pretty magical thing happens when you flip that on its head. Instead of thinking who is liberal and who is conservative, you look at it vertically and ask who is on top and who is at the bottom and you see that the rural and urban voters are at the exact same spot.”
Again, it is a message that resonates. “That inversion was like an epiphany,” a woman in the back row of chairs says afterward. “It blew me away when I heard it.”