Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

New Party For the Politically Homeless?

Mike McCabe, former head of WI Democracy Campaign, launches political party that's "neither elephant nor ass."

Mike McCabe

Mike McCabe

For 15 years, Mike McCabe headed Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the state’s foremost — and feistiest — sentinel of the role of money in politics. He brought equal amounts of anger and optimism to the group’s nonpartisan mission, skewering Democrats and Republicans alike and sounding a clarion call for reform.

“I loved that job,” McCabe says wistfully. “I could have very easily done it for another 15 years.”

But McCabe decided he needed to try a new approach. His 2014 book, “Blue Jeans in High Places,” calls for the creation of a new political movement for people like himself who feel “politically homeless,” alienated from both major parties.

“I wrote that book as a blueprint,” McCabe says. “Blueprints are worthless unless you use them to build something.”

What McCabe wants to build is not a third party, which he jokes is a lock to come in third. His concept, similar to progressive movements in the past and the tea party movement of recent years, is to create a “first party” — one that demands change from within the existing political structure.

“We are neither elephant nor ass,” McCabe has said, “but we recognize that America has a two-party system and we plan to work within that system to get the parties truly working for all of us and not just a favored few.”

Drawing on his metaphor about the threads of ordinary folk, McCabe calls this new party Blue Jean Nation — a collection of “commoners” organized around the notion that the major parties need a whack upside the head.

For now, it is being run out of his north-side Madison home, with McCabe working as a volunteer. He hopes that it will someday pay his bills, and dreams that it will spur real change, perhaps even going national, like the Progressive Movement of a century ago.

The group has just launched a website, bluejeannation.com, and already has organizers in all eight Wisconsin congressional districts and more than a quarter of its counties. McCabe has a mailing list of 6,000 names — and a concept for how that list could multiply.

“This is about engaging people at the community level,” McCabe says. “It’s about getting people who are interested in these ideas and this cause to rediscover their capacity to influence others,” through conversation.

What do the members of Blue Jean Nation talk about when they talk about politics? Here are some items from the group’s list of aims: ending corporate welfare, closing tax loopholes, encouraging local food production, expanding access to high-speed Internet, developing renewable energy, and building in automatic adjustments to the minimum wage.

Judy Goldsmith, past president of the National Organization for Women and supervisor on the Fond du Lac County Board, is a proud denizen of Blue Jean Nation.

“Mike and his ideas are the only thing to come down the road that says to me, ‘We can do something about this,’ ” says Goldsmith, who also serves on the group’s board. “It is a way of energizing and activating the people. We’re looking at not a money-based but people-based movement.”

McCabe, who has given 1,400 talks throughout his career, is now busy giving more — to college and high school students, civic groups and local political groups. He’s been surprised by the positive reception he’s gotten in some quarters.

“I gave a talk to the Chippewa County Democratic Party,” McCabe says. “I told them I think their party is failing and I told them why.” It led to his getting a standing ovation and a referral to speak to the nearby Eau Claire Democratic Party.

He imagines how that suggestion was conveyed: “This guy came out and told us we suck. You should have him come out and tell you that you suck too.”

Of such conversations, can a movement be born?

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight. The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

12 thoughts on “New Party For the Politically Homeless?”

  1. PMD says:

    I’m sure they will be as successful and influential as No Labels.

  2. Marie says:

    PMD: “No Labels” may have been a little too “groovy” and “let’s all just get along.” He seems to have more concrete messaging.

    It’s a heavy lift but there are folks of all leanings who value these goals (tho more on progressive spectrum). Younger voters seem concerned about these issues. Who knows?

  3. PMD says:

    But No Labels also had pretty recognizable names behind it, and it still couldn’t get any traction. People gripe about nastiness and partisanship, but then they mostly just keep voting for the same people anyway. Concrete messaging or not, this is going nowhere.

  4. Joe says:

    Some of the stated aims are: “ending corporate welfare, closing tax loopholes, encouraging local food production, expanding access to high-speed Internet, developing renewable energy, and building in automatic adjustments to the minimum wage.”

    If they stopped after the third one, bi-partisan support would be ensured but they’ll lose anyone who may lean right with the rest of the list, especially if those items require government intervention and/or money.

    It’s too bad, too. We could really use more people calling for ending corporate welfare, cleaning the tax code, and encouraging local food. Is it like the 99% where they had some good points but just couldn’t keep it simple? Sometimes less is more. Just think of the Libertarians that would help swell the ranks….they could even get Ron Paul as a speaker at an event if the first three are the focus. Oh well.

  5. PMD says:

    Assuming they would want Ron Paul to speak at an event. Maybe they would prefer to avoid old crazy white dudes.

  6. Rich says:

    Systematically dismissing this is equal to accepting the status quo. I’ve read his book and it makes decent points but was a bit dismayed that the stated goals included some of the same lofty fringe things that already don’t get much traction. Maybe they’ll have success in that, but if they spend too much time on — for example — minimum wage, it will probably die out.

  7. PMD says:

    I just don’t think it has much chance for success Rich. It’s about that far more than it is about their specific ideas or the hope that some kind of third party could present a viable alternative to the two-party system. I don’t see why this will fare any better than No Labels, which got a ton of press coverage when it was first announced.

  8. AG says:

    These itnra-party groups never seem to get much traction before being harshly attacked by the system. The tea party is actually a really good example. What started out as a bi-partisan group focused on fixing the tax system and controlling spending was demonized and made out to be an extreme group on the right. Eventually it became a far right conservative group… but I think that mainly had to do with the reputation it was given based on it’s opponents more than anything the initial following of members had done. Kind of a self fulfilling prophecy…

    I can see this group going the same way, but for the left. That is, if it gets any traction to begin with.

  9. PMD says:

    That strikes me as a little revisionist AG. My father-in-law was putting tea party bumper stickers on his truck around 2009, and he went to some rallies with homemade signs. They were rabidly right wing, the signs and the stickers. Isn’t that around the time the tea party was born? They were pretty far right and pretty loony from the start.

  10. Paul says:

    PMD, Old crazy white dudes? Kind of racist, aren’t you

  11. PMD says:

    Hi Paul. Nice to hear from you again. Are you retired?

  12. Rich says:

    Seems that they might have anticipated people asking them for some focus: http://www.bluejeannation.com/three-things-above-all-else/
    Still has far-reaching “climate change” on the list, though…

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