Note: Wisconsin author, activist, and small-d democracy advocate Mike McCabe is best known as the former Executive Director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and candidate for governor in 2018. The governor campaign was sparked in part by the success of McCabe’s democracy manifesto Blue Jeans in High Places. After a brief stint as Executive Director of We Are Many – United Against Hate, he’s now Executive Director of Our Wisconsin Revolution. Soon he will release a new book, Unscrewing America: Hints and Hopes From the Heartland. I asked him to answer some questions for State of the State and he graciously agreed. To order a copy of Unscrewing America, go here. –Tony Palmeri
Your forthcoming book “Unscrewing America: Hints and Hopes From the Heartland,” has a very provocative title. What’s the theme of the book and what provoked you to write it?
The book explores how and why American politics has taken a turn toward madness, and describes how and why so many Americans have come to believe the nation’s best days are in the rear-view mirror. The idea behind the book is that anyone wondering how Donald Trump managed to win the presidency and why he has a path to re-election had better carefully study places like Wisconsin, which was instrumental in putting Trump in the White House just as it played a crucial role in making Barack Obama the nation’s first black president and then re-electing him. In so many different ways on so many occasions over the course of the country’s history, Wisconsin has been America’s weather vane. I was inspired to write the book after traveling over 100,000 miles in 11 months in 2017 and 2018 without ever once journeying beyond Wisconsin’s borders. I thought I already knew Wisconsin like the back of my hand, but those travels were as eye-opening as they were exhausting. The people and the conditions I encountered brought into sharp focus how America is screwed, and what it will take to unscrew it.
Your previous book was called “Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics.” Does the fact that you felt the need to write “Unscrewing America” mean that the makeover of American politics is not happening as quickly as you and other progressives would like?
American politics have been made over alright but in a horrifying way, in a way I didn’t see coming and not many others could see coming. My first book came out in 2014, before Trump or Bernie Sanders were running for president. One of the ideas in that book was that conditions at that time were foreshadowing the political equivalent of an earthquake that would dramatically alter the political landscape. I thought it could give rise to a democratic populism along the lines of what Sanders’ 2016 presidential candidacy ended up representing. The earthquake hit, but it gave rise to an authoritarian populism instead, which Trump embodies. Now the question is where do we go from here? That’s the question Unscrewing America takes a stab at answering.
As regards the major political parties in America, you have long stood for the proposition that we have one party that is scary (the Republicans) and another that is scared (the Democrats). How do you see the scary/scared dynamic playing out in this presidential election year?
Trump’s reign is scary, no doubt about it. Establishment Democrats are very clear about what they are against, but reluctant to clearly spell out what they are for. Mainstream Democratic voters mirror this. They want Trump out. It’s not so clear what they want to replace him with. It’s incredibly common to hear Democratic voters say they plan to vote blue no matter who. That’s a plea for party unity, but it also comes off sounding like it doesn’t matter what the alternative to Trumpism is. For many who are not party loyalists, especially young people, it sounds to them like Democrats don’t stand for anything and will back anyone, no matter how flawed. In my first book, I did say that we have one party that is scary and another that is scared. That’s what gave Trump a path to winning the White House. If that dynamic isn’t changed, he has a path to re-election.
You’ve recently become the Executive Director of Our Wisconsin Revolution. What does OWR do and what’s involved in your role as Executive Director?
Our Wisconsin Revolution should be about revolutionizing our politics and revolutionizing Wisconsin. That doesn’t mean bloody conflict in the streets. It means working to fundamentally change things. It means challenging the parties to change their ways. It means confronting the corruption that has taken root. It means developing the capacity of citizens to be transformational leaders and change agents. It means trying to supply what’s missing in politics today. It means repeatedly asking and persuasively answering the question “what should Wisconsin be the first state in the nation to do?” Whenever major change has come to America, Wisconsin has been on the cutting edge. Wisconsin has had a habit of being first. First to establish kindergartens. First to set up a vocational, technical and adult education system. First to pass a law providing workplace injury compensation and first to create an unemployment compensation program. First to create primary elections to take the business of nominating candidates away from party bosses in smoke-filled rooms and put it in the hands of the people. First to base taxation on the ability to pay. First to ratify the amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote. First to pass a statewide gay rights law. Social Security was invented here. Wisconsin’s Gaylord Nelson was the founder of Earth Day to raise environmental consciousness. Time and again, Wisconsin has blazed trails. The state even pioneered how to mark the route, creating the first highway numbering system that was later adopted nationwide. If Wisconsin’s history of being a bellwether foreshadowed what’s to unfold in the future, we should be leading the nation’s response to today’s three revolutions. We are not. Not for now anyway. Creating the kind of politics capable of making Wisconsin a state of firsts in our day is Our Wisconsin Revolution’s reason to exist.
What’s your advice for readers who want to be actively involved in the struggle to unscrew America?
We all live in bubbles. The most important thing we can do is try to get out of our own bubble. Social media tend to keep us in a bubble. We can’t sit home alone and substitute virtual citizenship for the real thing. We need to get out there and connect with others and build relationships with people whose lives are so very different from our own and with whom we disagree about many things. And we need to come to grips with the fact that the kind of politics needed to solve our society’s biggest problems does not exist. It needs to be created. Our state and our country are going through three revolutions at once: An economic revolution driven by the twin forces of globalization and automation; a social revolution where the country’s historically dominant group is becoming a political minority; and an ecological revolution that threatens life on this planet. Our government is not constructively responding to these emergencies. At best, it is paralyzed and does nothing. At worst, it acts as a reactionary force seeking to cement the old order in place. Those calling the shots resist economic system changes that could soften the blow of economic displacement and dislocation so many workers are experiencing. They exploit anti-democratic features of our system to keep the historically dominant in power even as they no longer can muster majority support. They side with polluters and obstruct efforts to meaningfully respond to the climate crisis. Simultaneously going through three revolutions is bound to create political turmoil and social upheaval. If we are going to solve any of the biggest problems staring us in the face, or even begin to get a handle on any of these challenges, we need to revolutionize our politics. We need to create a kind of politics that does not currently exist.