Our Wisconsin Revolution’s new director: We’ve got to create a new kind of politics

Mike McCabe takes the long view in 2020

Thousands of people gather outside of the Wisconsin state capitol building during the 2011 Wisconsin Budget Protests.
Thousands of people gather outside of the Wisconsin state capitol building during the 2011 Wisconsin Budget Protests.

Our Wisconsin Revolution, the statewide group that grew out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, announced this week that it has hired its first executive director, Mike McCabe.

Mike McCabe

The announcement comes as national attention is increasingly focused on Wisconsin, which is widely seen as a critical state in the 2020 presidential election. But McCabe is quick to clarify that his focus is not defeating Donald Trump, supporting Sanders, or helping Wisconsin Democrats pick up seats in Congress or the state legislature. “What we are doing could help create the political conditions that could get us a change in leadership at the top,” he says. “But it goes beyond that. … I do want this organization to have a longer term vision. I don’t want it to be just about 2020.”

Intense focus on the next election cycle, McCabe says, is “one reason we’re in the mess we’re in. People are told what they should vote against, but not what we should be for.”

Our Wisconsin Revolution, which is made up of Sanders supporters as well as people who support other candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary, McCabe says, will seek to identify and support “transformational leaders” to run for office at the local and state level.

“Our government is not decisively acting on any of the serious problems we face,” McCabe says. He paraphrases the teenaged climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has said that the kind of politics needed to address climate change does not exist.

“The kind of politics needed to address a lot of our problems does not exist,” McCabe adds — including economic inequality and the effects of automation and globalization.

‘We need to revolutionize Wisconsin’ 

And change will not come from the current occupants of the State Capitol, he adds: “We need to revolutionize Wisconsin and eventually America.”

That notion is familiar to anyone who listened to Sanders during his presidential campaigns. McCabe credits Sanders with changing the political conversation, bringing ideas like Medicare for All and the growing gap between working people and “the 1%” into the mainstream. 

Sanders won the Democratic primary in Wisconsin by 13% in 2016, and his energized supporters built Our Wisconsin Revolution, fueled by the excitement of that campaign. But the group has lost steam in recent months. McCabe is taking the reins after a period in which the group’s two paid staff members left, and its dozen-and-a-half local chapters have become largely inactive. 

With resources from grants and individual donations on hand, McCabe estimates that he will have a budget of $150,000 to $200,000 for the next year. He plans to hire three or four regional organizers. And he expects that he will be able to raise more money and help the organization grow.

McCabe is a fixture of progressive politics in Wisconsin. He ran the government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign for 15 years, before leaving in 2015 to found Blue Jean Nation, a grassroots group that sought to forge a new movement for working people who did not feel adequately represented by either of the two major political parties. He then ran for governor as part of a crowded Democratic primary field in 2018. Most recently he served briefly as executive director of the group We Are Many United Against Hate — a position he says he left because he realized, after the group hired him last year to help it craft a new organizational plan, that “the best path forward was for me to write myself out of the script.” He remains on the advisory board and says he is on good terms with the organization and its founder, Masood Akhtar.

“Masood is really acting executive director in every way that matters and there’s no need to have two,” he says. “I’m convinced it’s the right thing to do for the group, and I’m going to stay on the advisory board.”

Serendipitously, the board of Our Wisconsin Revolution was seeking a new executive director at the same time that McCabe was stepping down, he says: “It takes me back to doing work that I’ve done for decades, and the focus is very consistent.”

It starts with imagination

“Mike McCabe brings decades of activism and thousands of supporters to this work, and we’re delighted he’s assuming the role of OWR’s first-ever executive director. We’re confident his leadership will take us to a whole new level of effectiveness,” Our Wisconsin Revolution co-chairs Sarah Lloyd and Joel Rogers said in a statement.

As for what the organization’s effect will be, McCabe is taking the long view.

“It starts with imagination,” he says. “A lot of people fall into the trap of just being against Donald Trump, or against Scott Walker,” he says. “We have to talk about what we are for. We have to tell stories about the kind of Wisconsin we want to live in. We can’t simply be a protest group.”

He reels off the list of progressive policy ideas that emerged from Wisconsin at the turn of the last century, including Social Security, workers’ compensation and child labor laws. “It’s been decades — if not generations — since Wisconsin lived up to that history,” he says. “It starts with organizing and trying to inspire people in communities.”

While the major parties focus on candidates who can raise enough money to be competitive, there are not enough visionary leaders being recruited and supported to run for office, he says. That will be Our Wisconsin Revolution’s primary focus.

More than turnout

And, while mainstream political operatives talk obsessively about turnout, McCabe takes a contrary line. “We can’t just get out the base,” he says, “We have to persuade people.” 

High turnout in the recall election against then-Gov. Scott Walker and in Walker’s re-election campaign in 2012 was not enough to defeat him. And it won’t be enough to defeat Trump in 2020, either, he says.

Instead of harassing the same Democratic voters with more phone calls, text messages and door knocks, “a whole lot of people need to get busy trying to find better answers to the big problems,” McCabe says. The goal should be to persuade a bigger cross-section of the population that they have good reasons to vote.

“Voters realize nobody is offering answers to these big problems,” he says. “And Trump is talking about those big things. His answers — a wall on the border, tariffs, protectionist trade policies — are the wrong answers for America, but he’s talking about the problems.” 

McCabe acknowledges that Our Wisconsin Revolution has struggled with getting a clear sense of identity and purpose. “Job one is to answer those questions: Why does it need to exist? What’s its purpose?” he says. “Then you build an organizational culture around that.”

He will seek to revive local chapters and get them active again, create new chapters, and work on recruiting candidates to run for state and local offices. “That’s something that can start and have an impact in 2020,” McCabe says, but in some places it might take years to build up. That’s OK with him.

“I am passionate about creating the kind of politics that does not exist,” he says. “We’ve got to create it.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.