Reviewed by Dr. Robert E. Hamilton (Ethiopia 1965-67)
This is how Mike McCabe ends his latest book, Unscrewing America (February 2020): “America is never finished. It is always a work in progress. . . . It is always in the making.” If we work on improving our “goodness,” McCabe argues, we don’t have to worry about our “greatness,” which will follow.
To get the reader to this point, over 200 pages from the beginning, McCabe first writes a memoir of his campaign in 2018 to be elected Governor of his home state, Wisconsin. He and a dozen other Democrat candidates lost to the current Governor, Tony Evers, who defeated incumbent Governor Scott Walker. Following the 60 pages of memoir, McCabe then describes and offers his opinion of the present condition of America’s essentially two-party political system and finds it woefully divorced from the needs of the American people, and prescribes the political medication needed to heal the body politic. In the final third of the book, McCabe delivers a pep talk to the electorate, encouraging us to remember the historical travails we have overcome since 1776 and to focus upon the many big tasks–collectively greater than the “moonshot” project President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to accomplish–which will unite us through a new mission, a new social contract, and new leadership which will lead to global collaboration to heal the planet.
As a self-advertised “denim rebel” within the “blue jean nation,” McCabe has devoted his adult life to observing Wisconsin politics as part of the national political landscape, writing about it, and investigating political corruption within the state, relying extensively upon the flow of money: donations to candidates and superpacs by individuals and organizations. The memoir, essay, and pep talk are not devoid of documentation: there are 380 “Endnotes” (i.e.footnotes) for the 15 chapters, and the sources include magazines, newspapers, books, government documents, CNN, CNBC, National Public Radio segments, his own Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reports, and Internet blogs. The Endnotes relate, generally but not exclusively, to Wisconsin’s politics, government, civic life, economy, rural farms, and residents. The book does lack an Index, which would have been helpful.
Mike McCabe was born into a Wisconsin farm family and a generous portion of Unscrewing America is devoted to describing the declining fortunes of family farms during his lifetime, and what should be done to give heartland rural residents fair access to educational and technological resources which now go primarily, he charges, to cities and the suburbs. Following college, he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, West Africa. He is now the Executive Director of Our Wisconsin Revolution and earlier established the grassroots organization Blue Jean Nation. For 15 years, he worked at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, specializing in the investigation of political and government corruption. WDC won awards for its work and McCabe added broadcasting honors as well. He appeared in two documentary films: Citizen Koch (2013) and Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes (2014). In the latter year, he also published Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics. It will not surprise readers, given these credit titles, to learn that McCabe pledged that if he was elected Wisconsin’s Governor he would be sworn in and continue to wear blue jeans in office–but not in the Governor’s official residence, where he would refuse to live, feeling that it is too plush and too distant from ordinary citizens.
The book begins, however, not with Wisconsin or with Mike McCabe’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign but with President Donald Trump and the Republican party. Trump, he says is “a perfect reflection” of why most voters “hate both major parties and believe that your average politicians are nothing but self-dealers, interested first and foremost in advancing their own careers and feathering their own nests.” Trump understands these hatreds, McCabe asserts, the Republican party establishment does not. Trump appeals to voters because they accept that he is “a narcissist” and many think “he’s already rich and famous and doesn’t need to hold any office to make a name for himself or line his pockets, even though he has done just that,” McCabe writes.
McCabe continues his analysis of why so many voters–Republicans, Democrats, and Independents–voted for Donald Trump in 2016 (he just might reopen the plant down the highway) and why neither major party anticipated the extent of voter disenchantment. However, McCabe says, Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did understand and called for radical solutions to issues that really matter. Leaders within both major parties have “similar mindsets,” “cater to their most loyal constituencies, and ignore other vast swaths of the population.”
Given these convictions, and with no campaign experience of his own, why did Mike McCabe–a political Independent–decide to run for Governor? McCabe delays answering this question by describing why Wisconsin is “the canary in the coal mine.” The state has swung from very liberal to Sen. Joseph McCarthy conservative. “Once a state of firsts, Wisconsin now is bringing up the rear by many measures.” There follows a long description of “What’s the matter with Wisconsin?” and why the entire nation should pay attention. “Wisconsin has lost its way and is becoming a shadow of its former self. Same goes for the country as a whole.”
In Chapter Two, “A Log Among Crocodiles,” when he was almost 58 years old, “…running for governor was never part of the plan.” He had followed political corruption and “dark money” but thought running for office himself was “lunacy.” By 2017, McCabe writes, Wisconsin voters were “restless” and “tiring” of Governor Scott Walker’s politics. McCabe refused suggestions that he run for Governor. A petition was then started to draft him. An assortment of 200 Wisconsin residents signed the draft letter. McCabe was described as “upright” and “not interested in self-enrichment …” as well as “not interested in running.” Supporters considered him a person who understands rural residents.
Eventually, Mike McCabe was persuaded to run as an Independent. When it became clear that he could never win that way, he registered as a Democrat, but the party did not recognize him as such and would not share with him the list of party names and addresses, a fundraising disadvantage. So, there is an interesting comparison one could make here between Trump and McCabe. The former, for many years a Democrat, ran as a Republican, not an Establishment or Regular Republican but rather a man with a national reputation as an entertainer, a businessman-television personality and self-promoter. He had never before run for office but was regularly interviewed by the media for opinions on a variety of topics. Mike McCabe, likewise, had never run for office, was independent of both major parties, and while not a national figure was well-known in Wisconsin political circles. He, like Trump, was disdainful and critical of the “Establishment” politics, which he has said were hated by voters. There is certainly circumstantial evidence that neither Trump nor McCabe expected to win, but by running, each might accomplish other goals relating to “brand”: revenue and personal income in Trump’s case, greater name recognition for favorite Wisconsin issues in McCabe’s case, particularly relating to rural equity.
Regardless of the greater notoriety, McCabe would gain as a gubernatorial candidate, and not just an investigative reporter, he was determined to remember his grassroots connections and farm family origins. He had no party support. In Mali, West Africa, he had been a Peace Corps Volunteer. There, he had learned the Bambara proverb: “No matter how long a log floats on the river, it will never be a crocodile.” In other words, “Be who you are.” This helps explain his on-going symbolic ties with his trademark denim bluejeans which he wore to remind listeners of the unfair, unjust treatment of “average Americans” who are feeling the tightening of the “screws” which are binding them and their families to a future of wrenching financial anguish–even before the 2020 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).
While Mike McCabe was being strongly encouraged to announce his candidacy as an Independent for Governor, he had another obvious option: announce his support for one of the many Democrats who had already launched a campaign, a candidate whose positions on major issues of the day were compatible with his own. He was told that a serious campaigner needed to raise $80 million to be a serious contender. Gov. Scott Walker had a long track record, lots of campaign cash, and had been re-elected after a failed recall election in 2012. McCabe chose not to endorse a Democrat but “against my better judgment” decided he would be a candidate himself. His goal was to introduce, “More common sense in government.” He later chose to run as a Democrat and wanted, as a “commoner son of dairy farmers,” to force both major parties to adopt platforms with measures to help ordinary citizens and voters. His political heroes, he writes, were former Wisconsin U.S. Senator William Proxmire, who did not accept campaign donations, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
McCabe was impressed with AOC’s political victory and the documentary about her campaign, Knock Down the House. The film did cause him to wonder whether he had run for selfish or principled reasons. “A big part of the reason why I let myself get talked into running for office was that I sensed our country was headed toward a dark and dangerous place.” Trump’s candidacy and then his election portended a rise of ultra-nationalism, fear-mongering, and increasing political division, he concludes.
In the second part of the book, Mike McCabe broadly overviews not just Wisconsin but the state of the nation. To heal the divide, Americans must accept that the current political environment is poisonous. We need to again find solutions that are unconventional, effective, and which benefit all of us. AOC’s victory suggests that people are willing to look for new solutions to old and current problems. McCabe refers to the needed approach as “swimming upstream,” and says that “only dead fish go with the flow.” He begins by addressing our “throwaway economy.” He again examines the impact of “dark money” upon politics, efforts to eliminate public and private sector labor unions, contends that we no longer have a free-market economy ( “we don’t actually have free markets. We have politically manipulated markets. We have crony capitalism.”), supports “geyser economics” to pay for free college education plus: (1) a boost in wages; (2) healthcare stability and security; (3) affordable job training for children and grandchildren; (4) high-speed internet for all Americans and mobile-phone service; and (5) a restructured tax system.
Beginning with chapter eight, “The Next Moonshot,” McCabe alternates between boosting our spirits and warning of the dangers of America becoming a “Pottersville” like that portrayed in the film It’s a Wonderful Life. McCabe may be correct in asserting that Wisconsin is the national “canary in the coal mine.” The state is drawing national media and political attention as a “must win” for Donald Trump and Joe Biden and the recent movie Irresistible with Steve Carrel and Chris Cooper (which this reviewer has not seen) apparently has the politically rejuvenating spirit of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
While Mike McCabe’s pep talk in part three of Unscrewing America may be useful for those wanting more insight into Wisconsin’s 2018 gubernatorial election and McCabe’s campaign, his advice to Democrats regarding a presidential win in November 2020 is less useful than, for example, that of veteran political campaign consultant Paul Begala’s recent book, You’re Fired: The Perfect Guide to Beating Donald Trump (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020). For useful insight into how voters really decide who they’ll vote for, readers can turn to moral psychologist and philosopher Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion (New York: Vintage Books: 2012). In the latter book, Prof. Haidt asserts that “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” That is, people make up their minds first about political and religious matters and then find “moral arguments” later to support that position. The “central metaphor” is, “the mind is divided like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant:” i.e. rational arguments serve pre-determined intuitive judgment.
Finally, if Mike McCabe, Paul Begala, and Jonathan Haidt wonder why their individual book sales are lagging–if indeed they actually are–this reviewer wondered what competition they face in the book seller’s “how-to” guides market relating to politics. An hour’s search of the Internet, not a comprehensive one, resulted in a list of 30 books which are how-to guides for those wanting to debate and/or defeat Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Conservatives, Liberals, The System, Fascists, Progressive Islamists, Dandelion Insurrectionists, Radical Conservatives, Deplorables, Realistic Radicals, Leftists, Progressive Superstaters, Evil Socialists, Revolutionaries, and more.
Want to develop your own list of “how-to” debate and defeat your own political and religious opponents at the Thanksgiving table in November? Go ahead, you’re just a single click away.
Dr. Robert E. Hamilton (Ethiopia, 1965-67) is a consultant to business, medical, and educational projects relating to Africa. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Cell: 503-320-5994; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. A longer review of this book is available upon request.