Can We Imagine a New Type of Politics?

Politics and politicians stopped making sense to me a long time ago. This I know: Most people hate both parties with a passion. This I also know: People hate how politicians campaign for office. If airlines advertised like politicians, no one in America would fly. In car companies advertised like politicians, I’m not sure anyone would drive either. Can We Imagine a New Type of Politics?

Keynote speech by Mike McCabe at People’s Legislature citizen assembly
February 1, 2012

Posted February 3, 2012

Politics and politicians stopped making sense to me a long time ago. This I know: Most people hate both parties with a passion. This I also know: People hate how politicians campaign for office. If airlines advertised like politicians, no one in America would fly. If car companies advertised like politicians, I’m not sure anyone would drive either.

People's Legislature, February 2, 2012
Video courtesy of
On The
Earth Productions

A huge segment of the public believes both sides are bought. That’s a reality. When you look at how the money flows, it only reinforces that belief. Scott Walker already has raised more money for this recall election in about a year than any candidate for any state office in the state’s history has ever raised, breaking his own record – he raised about $11 million over a four-year period to win the 2010 election for governor. In a fraction of that time, he’s already raised more than $12 million . . . and we don’t even have an election authorized yet and he has no official opponent. In his last fundraising report, 61% of his individual contributions came from outside Wisconsin. Half of his money came from just 33 donors. He got a million dollars in one week from just four people – three corporate executives from Missouri and another from Texas.

Yet Scott Walker is able to say he’s only raising this money from out of state because the other side has all this money from out of state. There’s enough of a kernel of truth to it that he’s able to spin this fantasy that his is a grassroots campaign relying on small donations when actually half of the money came from 33 donors who gave anywhere from $20,000 to $250,000. The biggest spender in this summer’s recall elections for the Democrats was a group that spent almost $11 million. Over $10 million of it came from three donors from outside of Wisconsin.

So what you have is all this evidence that just reinforces the widespread belief that both sides are bought. A great many people also believe a popular myth – namely that Republicans get almost all of their money from business and Democrats get most of theirs from labor. Overall, business interests give $12 to candidates for state office in Wisconsin for every dollar labor gives. Democrats get $6 from business for every dollar they get from unions.

For this very reason, union leaders stopped making sense to me quite awhile ago. Businesses have capital, unions have people, yet labor has gladly operated in a capital-intensive system for 30 years or more. And they’ve actively and publicly fought against reforms that would move us away from a system where money is all that matters.

What’s been the reaction in the Capitol to the widespread belief that both sides are bought? Proposed legislation blinding voters to the financial interests of campaign donors. If people are alarmed by money’s influence over our politics, well then just stop letting them see what interests are behind all that money. A senate committee already has given this idea its blessing.

Where is the Democratic alternative? What is it?

We face huge challenges in our state and huge threats to our democracy. But the biggest threat of all is a lack of political imagination.

What if someone ran for office Bill Proxmire style? Wisconsin elected Prox to represent the state in the United State Senate and repeatedly returned him to Washington, and he never once spent as much as $300 on one of his statewide campaigns for office.

I can feel the collective cringe. I can see the words forming on the lips of party insiders and political establishment types. Oh my god, he's talking about UNILATERAL DISARMAMENT! Prox couldn’t win today. You have to fight fire with fire. An eye for an eye.

An eye for an eye always leaves both eyes blind. Fighting fire with fire leaves our state and our nation and the very idea of government by consent of the governed in ashes.

If there has ever been a time that screams out for political innovation, this is it.

We just said so long to 2011, and good riddance to that year. One thing about 2011, though. It marked the 100th anniversary of the most remarkable legislative session in Wisconsin history. Probably the most amazing one in American history. The 1911 Wisconsin legislature.

That legislature struck mighty blows for worker rights, enacting child labor laws and protections for women in the workplace. It established worker’s compensation. It enacted sweeping railroad regulation. Insurance reform. The first state life insurance program. Taxation based on ability to pay. It created the first vocational, technical and adult education system.

What happened in 1911 was no accident. It happened because of what was done in 1897 and 1905. In 1905, bribery was outlawed. Think on that for a moment. You all know when Wisconsin became a state. 1848. That means for the first half century of statehood it was perfectly legal to bribe a public official. Then in 1905, the legislature banned corporate campaign contributions and corporate election spending. Those actions set the stage for the 1911 legislature. Those actions liberated public officials from the grip of the robber barons and created conditions allowing for laws to be made in the public interest.

We’ve come full circle and people on the right, left and center know it. Bribery is effectively legal again. I’m not saying that people believe that public officials are regularly taking old-fashioned under-the-table bribes. It’s that people on the right, left and center know full well there is a new over-the-table variety of bribery.

What if we recriminalized it?

What if the pushback against this corruption started with one side going cold turkey on legal bribery?

What if someone ran Proxmire style? What if someone occupied democracy?

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. People crave this.

If this isn’t a golden opportunity for political innovation, I don’t know what is….

It’s a golden opportunity because anyone running for office Proxmire style would have something going for them Prox never did . . . an army of 30,000 people who went out gathering petition signatures in the dead of winter. A million petition signers.

It wouldn’t just be Prox at the plant gate, or at Lambeau, or Camp Randall , or the State Fair. It could be tens of thousands of people fanning out across the state with a totally different approach to campaigning. Tens of thousands of people who could become walking ads on street corners and sidewalks and parking lots and every other imaginable public place. Thousands who could become living billboards out on roadsides and busy thoroughfares. Thousands who could be panhandlers for the politically homeless, saying “brother can you spare a voice?” Collecting small change for a big change.

If there’s anyone out there who knows how this recall election will turn out, they’ve got a crystal ball I don’t have. Maybe Walker will win. Maybe he’ll lose. It’ll be close.

But as things stand today, if he loses he’ll lose not because people see a thrilling alternative – and that’s exactly what people deserve . . . a thrilling alternative.

He’ll lose because people can’t stand having him in office for another minute.

He’ll lose because he trampled on worker rights.

He’ll lose because he promised 250,000 new jobs and we got six straight months of job losses instead.

He’ll lose because he promised a balanced budget, but didn’t deliver.

He’ll lose because of the growing corruption scandal surrounding him.

He’ll lose because the state of our state is turmoil, division, polarization and in-your-face, my-way-or-the-highway politics.

Here’s what leaves me scratching my head…. Imagining a new kind of politics, a new way of running for office is too risky. But it’s not too risky to depend on people concluding they can’t tolerate Walker despite the absence of a compelling alternative to the legal bribes and scorched-earth advertising they fund.

Creating a positive and plausible alternative to today’s politics involves risk.

Liberals ended slavery. There was no risk involved with that? Liberals got women the right to vote. There was no resistance to that? Liberals created Social Security and wiped out poverty among the aged. No risk there either? Liberals took on segregation, passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. All of these undertakings involved considerable risk.

We are journeying into a great unknown. We face challenges never before seen in our lifetimes. We face a crisis in our democracy never seen in living memory.

We live in a time when everything we hold most dear is at risk.

Talk about your turning points.

Do we play it safe? Do we keep doing what we’ve been doing? Or do we take a leap of faith?

The real questions are for the politicians. Do you trust in that army of 30,000 petitioners? Do you trust in those million signers?

It’s time to take that leap of faith. It’s time to discard old habits and imagine a whole new way of doing things. If there’s to be any hope for the common good, we need uncommon politics.

This I know: The fate of our state and our country rests on our response.

This I also know: If our fear of risk paralyzes us, history’s judgment will be harsh.