There Comes a Time

Remarks by Mike McCabe at the 9th Annual Fighting Bob Fest, September 11, 2010

Posted: September 13, 2010

There comes a time in politics when more than just the politicians make no sense.

We gather here at such a time.

Let me illustrate with a simple test. If government matters to you – that is, if you think government plays an important role in our society and has a significant impact on your life – please stand up.

Take a moment to look to your left and to your right, look in front of you and behind you.

WDC Executive Director
Mike McCabe’s Remarks

Video courtesy of
On The Earth Productions

Now, if you matter to government – if your voice is regularly being heard, if your concerns are consistently being considered, if your wishes are routinely reflected in government policies and the actions of elected officials – please remain standing. If, on the other hand, you don’t see much of you in your government, go ahead and sit down.

Once again, look around you.

You can see that you are not alone in how you answer these questions. As a matter of fact, you are squarely in the mainstream of public opinion. In the UW Survey Center’s latest polling, two-thirds of Wisconsin residents said public officials “don’t care much what people like me think.” Well over half say government is “run by a few big interests” and agree with the statement: “People like me don’t have any say about what the government does.”

Think about what I asked you: Does government matter to you? and Do you matter to government? Remember when you stood and when you sat. Is this the way these questions should be answered in the greatest democracy on the face of the earth?

There comes a time when the promise of democracy looks and sounds like false advertising. We live in such a time.

When you and your neighbors – and two-thirds of all Wisconsinites – say public officials don’t care what people like you think, you’ve got perfectly good reason. Our state legislators get $2 out of every $3 they raise for their election campaigns from people who can’t vote for them. Their campaign money comes from less than 1% of the state’s population. They are not listening to you because they are paid not to listen to you.

We’ve all grown used to hearing about these $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinners…. What are they eating for that kind of money? Well, I got ahold of this invitation for a luncheon in Milwaukee last month. $25,000 a plate. Ain’t no doubt what they are eating. They are having all of us for lunch.

There comes a time when politics gets so diseased and the politicians and the parties get so disconnected from the public they are supposed to be serving that something’s got to give. We have unquestionably reached such a breaking point.

One party is scary, the other scared. The ranks of the politically homeless have never been greater. Some have sought refuge in fake shelters, like the teahouse built by three of the richest men in the world.

There comes a time when history repeats itself so completely and so nakedly that certain truths are plainly self-evident, and yet remain mysteriously invisible to so many. Now is just such a time.

People forget that the original Boston Tea Party was not only a protest of British rule but also an act of civil disobedience against Britain’s East India Trading Company. Those tea partiers understood how unrestrained corporate power goes hand in hand with political oppression.

Today’s tea partiers are most notably notable for blindness to irony. Their party is authorized and paid for by one of the largest privately held companies in the world, Koch Industries. Among America ’s billionaires, only Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are richer than David and Charles Koch. Their company and all its subsidiaries operate in 60 countries. They own oil refineries and operate pipelines all across North America. They make Lycra for clothing and Teflon for pots and pans. They produce everything from Dixie cups to Brawny paper towels. They do fertilizer and chemicals and plastics and commodities trading and cattle ranching. Oh, and tea parties.

How rich are the Koch brothers? Even wealthier than Rupert Murdoch, whose holdings are said to be worth more than $60 billion. I mention Murdoch because the Koch Industries Tea Party has been promoted 24/7 by Murdoch’s media empire.

Democracy is not possible without authentic journalism. There comes a time when journalism fails us. When an obscure preacher with 50 followers is made into a national celebrity for threatening to burn another religion’s holy book, you know such a time has arrived. When Helen Thomas is no longer in the front row at White House press briefings but a seat up front is given to a fake news organization dedicated to partisan propaganda and devoted to making us dumber and less able to see the truth and less capable of governing ourselves, you know such a time is upon us.

There comes a time when words fail us. George Orwell warned us about 1984. I wonder if he realized we might not stay warned until 2010. Plain English used to have a place even in politics. Time was when a bribe was a bribe. Then it became a donation, like giving blood or bringing a dish to pass after church. Now they call it free speech.

There comes a time when our justice system fails us. Judges look at our Constitution and it says “We the People” and they see corporation. Never mind the word is nowhere to be found anywhere in the entire document. They see it anyway.

They look at the First Amendment and it says freedom of speech and freedom of the press and they see money. The word is nowhere to be found. They see commerce. There is no commerce clause in the First Amendment, but they see it anyway. The First Amendment says the people have the right to assemble and petition their government and practice religion as they see fit, and the judges see a constitutional right to buy politicians.

Then we win new rules that at least give us the ability to see who’s behind the proverbial curtain pulling the levers. And four members of our state Supreme Court block those rules, keeping the public in the dark about who is paying for all that campaign advertising we must endure. The groups suing to stop the rules claim that even disclosure is a violation of their free speech rights. The four justices summarily rule the “petitioners have met their burden to show a likelihood of irreparable injury.”

Injury? What campaign message is banned by these rules? What ad can’t be aired? What can’t be said? The rules just require disclosure.

There comes a time when equal protection under the law becomes a hell of a lot more equal for some than for others.

It’s obvious why the wealthy interests who want to buy politicians and own our government have an interest in keeping it all a secret. They don’t want you to know whose pocket your elected representatives are in. They get $100 back for every dollar they put into election campaigns – yep, you heard me right, for every dollar they donate they get $100 back in the form of tax breaks, pork barrel projects and contracts for government work. Of course it’s in their interest to keep these transactions out of sight.

But now we have passed through the looking glass and have judges who are indentured servants of those wealthy interests and they are handing down rulings effectively saying that keeping voters ignorant of this crooked game is required by the Constitution.

The state Supreme Court justices who stood for this nonsense – David Prosser, Annette Ziegler, Michael Gableman and Patience Roggensack – are the same four who wrote new rules allowing judges in Wisconsin to rule on cases involving their biggest campaign supporters. Well, they didn’t actually write the rules. They approved what two of the state’s most powerful lobbying groups – Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and Wisconsin Realtors Association – wrote for them.

There comes a time when Fighting Bob La Follette becomes more relevant, more important, more necessary than ever before in our lifetimes. We gather at just such a moment.

If we are to remember Fighting Bob and properly celebrate his legacy, we do it by acting as he would act. Our current circumstances would be all too familiar to him. He would not despair over our predicament. He would stand and fight.

You know he would howl in protest over the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this past January in the Citizens United case allowing corporations to spend as much as they want on elections. We too must raise our voices in protest.

You know he would insist that protest be turned into concrete action.

Some say we need far more robust disclosure laws to expose all those engaged in the legalized extortion and bribery that is so rampant in our political system today. Others say we need corporate accountability laws requiring businesses to notify and get permission from their shareholders before spending their money on elections. Still others say we need a 28th Amendment to the Constitution overturning the Citizens United decision and spelling it out plain and simple for all of America’s judges that money is not speech, corporations are not people, elections are not auctions and public offices are not mere commodities to be bought and sold.

We must do all these things. They are not mutually exclusive. They are all necessary. But as important as they are, there is something else that’s even more important – not to mention exceedingly difficult.

We need to get way better at speaking truth to power. Far too many times, we go to public hearings or town hall meetings ready to give elected officials a piece of our minds, ready to read them the riot act. When our turn comes, though, it’s funny how some of our choicest words seem to stick in our throats. We are overcome by politeness.

Oh, maybe you say enough to get under their skin. But then they stare you down and tell you how offended they are that you would possibly think campaign donations would ever influence them, how they’ve never – ever! – been influenced by a contribution, and how their most loyal supporter is actually the little old lady who lives down the street and used to be their third grade teacher. Funny how they all seem to live down the street from the little old lady who was their third grade teacher.

And almost apologetically, we pull our punches from that point forward. Opportunity missed.

There comes a time when we have to stop being so damned polite.

Remember how ostracized La Follette was at times during his illustrious career. Remember how he broke the unwritten Senate rule that freshman senators were not supposed to give floor speeches, delivering one that lasted several days and took up 148 pages in the Congressional Record. Remember how he read the roll call votes of his fellow senators, name by name, in his speeches. The New York Times observed, “(La Follette) carried senatorial discourtesy so far that he has actually imperiled the reelection of some of the gentlemen” serving with him in the Senate. Remember how hated he was by opponents, how his enemies eventually tried to kick him out of the Senate.

Remember what he said. “America is not made, it is in the making. Mere passive citizenship is not enough. Men must be aggressive for what is right if government is to be saved from those who are aggressive for what is wrong.”

Yes, we need better disclosure laws. Yes, we need shareholder consent laws. Yes, we absolutely need public financing. Yes, we can and we should amend the Constitution. It’s been done 27 times before, it can be done again.

But more than anything, we all need to get more comfortable being politically impolite. That seemed to come naturally to Fighting Bob La Follette. We need to do as Fighting Bob did.

You know there’s one more thing Fighting Bob would do today. When the major political parties grow so rotten and corrupt, when there is no political party that can realistically be expected to govern in the public interest, you know that Fighting Bob would set out to create one that does.

I am not talking about a third party movement, and neither would he. What’s needed is a first party movement. There ought to be at least one party devoted to putting We the People first, to working for the common good, what’s best for the average citizen, what’s good for the whole country. Less than 1% of the population pays for today’s election campaigns. There ought to be a party for the other 99%.

There comes a time when Fighting Bob starts making all kinds of sense. This is such a time.

La Follette knew the kind of challenges that confront us today. He lived through the Gilded Age and brought an end to the worst excesses of that corrupt era. We are living through a Stilted Age, where a privileged few are once again lifted above the country’s troubles while the many struggle to keep their heads above water while watching jobs and homes and savings and ways of life wash away.

This is not the first time our state and our country have faced such perils. And what the Supreme Court did this past January is not the first time high court justices have taken leave of their senses. Over 150 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that people can be property. Eight months ago, it ruled that property can be a person. Same song, second verse.

There comes a time when justice needs to be restored. There is no time like the present.

Our nation’s founders never said money is speech. They never said corporations are people. There comes a time when the actual words of the founders must be respected and honored. That time is upon us.

There comes a time when the will of the people shall be the law of the land. That was Fighting Bob’s greatest hope. He shouted that hope to the heavens and then he went to work and took that hope and made it history.

Never before in our lifetimes has it been more important that we shout that same hope to the heavens and at no time has it been more essential to repeat that history.

The will of the people – the will of living, breathing, flesh-and-blood citizens – shall be the law of the land.

There comes a time.