Caste, American Style

This is no time to mince words. Our country is in decline. To reverse that decline, and this is a tall order, we have to overcome at least four national emergencies we are experiencing all at once.

One is economic inequality that is ripping at the fabric of our society and turning one American against another. On top of that, there is health insecurity. There is more to the anxiety so many are feeling than COVID. Millions feared falling ill even before the coronavirus started ravaging our nation because they lacked health insurance enabling them to afford medical care. Millions more lost jobs when the pandemic hit causing them to lose the insurance that was tied to their employment.

Then there is social injustice, for years a brightly glowing ember that burst into flames this year, sparked by racial tensions that exploded into nationwide unrest and upheaval. Speaking of flames, much of America’s west coast has been burning, the direct result of a fourth national emergency—environmental insanity. We are staring down the barrel of a gun—a looming and undeniable climate crisis—that threatens life on this planet.

As if four national emergencies are not more than enough to deal with in the midst of a pandemic, we’ve all had to endure a contentious, bitterly divisive election full of disinformation and lies. Our election system and democratic institutions have so far held up under immense stress. It feels like our country has dodged a bullet. But we’re not out of the woods yet. The election’s aftermath has been unprecedentedly disturbing. There may be more bullets to dodge between now and January 20. Then the truly hard part begins.

The conditions that brought Donald Trump to power were decades in the making and will not disappear just because he vacates the office. The lethal combination of growing economic inequality and chronic social injustice has produced what is effectively a caste system in America. The country has its royalty, its courtier class, its commoners and its untouchables.

The failings of our health care system aggravate this condition, as they fall hardest on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable among us. Those same populations also suffer the most from environmental degradation. The air and water are much more likely to be poisoned where they live. Their homes are the first to be swept away by floodwaters resulting from climate change.

All four of our national emergencies are most brutal to those on the bottom rungs of America’s caste ladder. If these emergencies go unsolved, anger and desperation will grow.

Bold action is required to reverse the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, cure what ails our sick health care system, arrest climate catastrophe and come to terms with systemic racism…or our nation’s decline will continue and tensions will escalate. Problem is, America’s major political parties are not thinking or acting boldly. One has been doing everything in its power to prevent the country from striking at the root of these emergencies. The other’s alternative has been cautious incrementalism. One party is increasingly scary, the other perpetually scared.

That won’t do. It’s up to we the people to think big, demand more, insist on bold steps. We are all about to be tested like never before.

Mike McCabe

November 16, 2020


People v. Money in Fond du Lac

Lighthouse at Lakeside Park, Fond du Lac. Photo by gobucks2/flickr

It’s a tale of big money, citizen outrage, and complicit politicians, all fighting over the fate of an iconic Wisconsin park.

Often referred to as the crown jewel of Fond du Lac, Lakeside Park is so iconic that its lighthouse is in the city logo. This landmark, built in 1933, sits inside a park whose open green space and trees have provided treasured family memories for generations of Fond du Lac residents.

Now this public space is targeted by a private investors group ready to spend $5.2 million to construct a restaurant on Lighthouse Peninsula as well as a large amphitheater on Oven Island. The project would forever change the historic park that graces the shores of Lake Winnebago.

In response, Fond du Lac residents took action to oppose development of the park, through a Facebook group of 3,700 members, a petition now up to 2,676 signatures, and testimony to City Council. More than 300 have left comments about the proposal on the city’s website, the vast majority against developing the park.

When none of that worked, Friends of Lakeside Park stepped up action. The citizens group gathered thousands of signatures on a legal petition to put any development at Lakeside Park to a vote of the people, through a procedure in Wisconsin known as a 9.20 petition.

Under Wisconsin’s 9.20 statutes, citizens can enact direct city ordinances by gathering signatures from at least 15 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election. Friends of Lakeside Park did that, gathering 3,039 signatures on a petition regarding the restaurant proposed for Lighthouse Peninsula and 2,967 signatures on a petition regarding the amphitheater proposed for Oven Island.

In both cases, the petitions would have required any developments at Fond du Lac’s crown jewel park to be voted on by the people of Fond du Lac. It wouldn’t necessarily stop such developments but would vest decision-making authority in the people rather than donors working with city officials.

Sadly, Fond du Lac city government seems determined to ram through the plan to develop Lakeside Park regardless of citizen input. On October 14, City Council rejected the petitions from Friends of Lakeside Park by a vote of 4-2, with one abstention.

City attorney Deb Hoffman advised the petitions were not proper because direct legislation cannot be used to repeal an existing ordinance — in this case Resolution 8859 to begin planning toward the Lakeside Park development plan, passed by City Council in February.

But Mary Beth Peranteau, attorney for the citizens group, disagrees. She points out the direct legislation supported by thousands of Fond du Lac citizens would not repeal Resolution 8859 but simply put it to a vote of the people.

Further, Peranteau argues, the development plan is still subject to design review and code approvals. “No plans have been submitted for approval and no funds committed to the implementation of the plan. Ultimately the effect of the direct legislation proposed by the Friends would be to add another approval requirement” – approval by the people of Fond du Lac.

So why is Fond du Lac City Council trying so hard to deny its own citizens a vote on the fate of its most iconic public park?

The answer, in short, is money. In particular, City Council members are worried that if they don’t quickly approve the proposal for private development of Lakeside Park, in the words of Council Member Ben Giles, “the money will walk.”

Indeed, the investors group is threatening to pull its $5.2 million if the controversy doesn’t reach a conclusion soon. “There have been some donors who have really expressed reluctance who keep their money allocated if there is not some certainty provided,” spokeswoman Sadie Parafiniuk said.

From where we sit, this looks an awful lot like blackmail. City Council members were elected by the people to serve the best interests of the people — and a large citizens group in Fond du Lac has clearly indicated they do not want this proposed development in Lakeside Park.

There is no reason why the restaurant could not go in a different location, either on the west side of Lakeside Park or inland along Harbor View Drive. The reason these alternate locations were not proposed is private investors want the lakeview next to the lighthouse and nearby boat slips. But such a location is not required for them to do business.

The proposed location also brings up two practical matters. First, is building a new restaurant really the right thing to do in the middle of a pandemic, when current restaurants in Fond du Lac are barely hanging on? Wouldn’t that money be better spent on helping existing businesses in Fond du Lac that are struggling?

And second, why is the city rushing to build a restaurant in the middle of a flood plain? Most of Lakeside Park is in either a 500-year or 100-year floodplain — but as we have seen, with climate change, century floods are starting to happen every few years. The floods of March 2019 are still fresh in the memories of many in Fond du Lac.

Big money shouldn’t be able to dictate all the terms of engagement with a city. City leaders should be acting on behalf of the people who elected them, and city residents should have the final word on what happens to public space their tax dollars support.

Friends of Lakeside Park has now filed legal action against the city over the rejection of their 9.20 petitions, and they need your help to pay attorney’s fees. You can support them by donating here.


Op Ed – October 20, 2020


Originalist, My Ass

Amy Coney Barrett is the latest in a long line of judges fond of calling themselves originalists. They claim that means their rulings are faithful to the original wording of the U.S. Constitution. They also like to call themselves textualists, meaning they are supposed to abide by the plain language of the law.

“Originalist” and “textualist” are marketing brands, not a judicial philosophy. Pledging allegiance to the Constitution and fidelity to the law sounds good, but the way these judges rule bears no relationship to the label they wear.

Judge Barrett was asked during hearings on Senate confirmation of her Supreme Court appointment if either the Constitution or federal law give the president the authority to delay an election. Both the Constitution and federal law are crystal clear on this question. The answer is no. The president has no such authority. Judge Barrett did not give that answer. She proved right then and there she is an originalist in name only.

So-called originalists on the nation’s highest court blessed unlimited corporate election spending in the 2010 case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. They reached their conclusion by marrying two legal doctrines, neither of which can be found anywhere in the Constitution.

The first doctrine is that money is speech. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to free speech. The amendment is 45 words long. The word money is not one of those 45 words. The conclusion that money equals speech cannot be reached by sticking to the Constitution’s wording.

The second doctrine is that corporations are people or, more precisely, they are citizens with constitutional rights. If you read the entire Constitution, from the first word “We”—as in “We the People”—to the very last word of the 27th and final amendment to the Constitution, you will not find the word corporation. Corporate citizenship is a legal invention that is not rooted in any way in the phrasing of the Constitution.

Yet the “originalists” who formed the court majority in Citizens United nevertheless ruled that since money is speech and corporations are citizens, corporations have a constitutional right to spend as much as they want to influence our elections.

The infamous Citizens United decision revealed the canyon-sized gap between what these judges claim to be and what they really are. In reality, there are two kinds of judges. There are those who claim to be originalists but are actually obstructionists. They obstruct change, they work to keep power in the hands of those who’ve traditionally held power. And there are judges who are willing to grant permission for society to change, who open doors for those who’ve been on the outside looking in.

A telling moment in Judge Barrett’s confirmation hearings came when she was asked if she knew the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution. She named four of them, but couldn’t remember the fifth. The one she forgot was the right of the people to protest, to petition our government for redress of grievances.

Mike McCabe

October 16, 2020


Newspaper Commentary – October 14, 2020

McCabe: Want to see extremism? Look no farther than Cambria

Look one direction, and there’s turmoil and upheaval. Look another, and there’s official incompetence and almost comical dysfunction. There are flames to the west of us, tempest waves and gale-force winds to the south. The heartland mourns another farmer suicide, another shuttered storefront, another idled factory, another school closing, another small town dying, another urban center decaying, another renter evicted, another homeowner foreclosed.


Calm During the Storm

Look one direction and there’s turmoil and upheaval. Look another and there’s official incompetence and almost comical dysfunction. There are flames to the west of us, tempest waves and gale-force winds to the south. The heartland mourns another farmer suicide, another shuttered storefront, another idled factory, another school closing, another small town dying, another urban center decaying, another renter evicted, another homeowner foreclosed. Tent cities—modern-day Hoovervilles—dot the landscape. On high, there is callous disregard for this human suffering.

Standing over the wreckage are immaculately groomed, stylishly dressed, abundantly compensated dignitaries who turn positively indignant over any suggestion that maybe a helping hand could be offered to the struggling. They see red over talk of guaranteeing every American access to health care. To them, that is an extreme step that is part of a radical agenda that includes bold action to prevent climate catastrophe. Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are their bogeymen.

There’s nothing extreme or radical about addressing health insecurity with Medicare For All or environmental insanity with a Green New Deal. Economic inequality to the point where three billionaires own more than half of all Americans combined is extreme. Spending trillions of dollars on endless wars overseas is radical.

Downplaying a public health emergency or ignoring it altogether is extreme negligence. Green Bay, Appleton, Oshkosh, Fond du Lac and Marinette are now among the 20 U.S. metro areas with the greatest number of positive COVID-19 tests per 100,000 people. The Green Bay Packers announced that fans would not be allowed to attend home games indefinitely, citing the rampant community spread of the coronavirus. While the Packers felt compelled to take one for the team and forego ticket sales, Wisconsin’s do-nothing legislature remains in hiding, not having met in over five months. This is radical indifference.

Speaking of extremists, here we sit, not far from the Columbia County village of Cambria where a band of white supremacist vigilantes evidently were training and making preparations to overthrow Michigan’s government in hopes of starting a civil war before their plot was foiled by state and federal law enforcement. At least 13 appeared to be in on it. Criminal complaints allege some of them conspired to kidnap the state’s governor, bring her to a “secure location” in Wisconsin and try her for “treason.” Others in the group allegedly were looking to blow up bridges and gun down police officers to advance their aims.

Now that is extreme, that is radical, that is the single greatest terrorist threat to our country, that is fascism rising, that is civil society under siege.

In this anxiety producing moment, with this kind of madness unleashed, getting truly serious about looking out for each other’s health and welfare and taking care of the planet we all call home are the most calming, stabilizing actions we could possibly take right now.

Mike McCabe

October 13, 2020


Seeing is Believing

It all comes down to us.

The outcome of this year’s elections, the fate of democracy and the direction of our country come down to whether we believe what we see with our own eyes and trust what we feel in our gut.

Our ability to do this is being severely tested. By the debates, for starters. Lincoln-Douglas they ain’t. Even calling them debates is false advertising. Anyone who endured the trauma of watching the September 29 brawl can’t be blamed for feeling like they had just been assaulted. We all were assaulted. The assault was by design. The principal assailant’s chances for reelection hinge on convincing enough of us not to believe what we are seeing and not to trust what we are feeling.

He doesn’t need to convince a majority of Americans. He doesn’t even need to convince a majority of those who bother to vote. Remember, we don’t elect presidents by national popular vote. He’ll win some states by wide margins. He’ll lose others by even bigger margins. He’ll lose the national popular vote. By a lot. Doesn’t matter. The election will be decided by who gets more than 50% of the vote in the few remaining states.

To pull this off, the current occupant of the White House needs to convince just enough people that 2020 has not been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. He needs us to question our own instincts and doubt our own judgment. He needs us to think that maybe the economy really was great before the pandemic hit. He needs us to forget that there were already grotesque levels of economic inequality. He needs us to forget that the rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer and the middle class was fast shrinking even before the coronavirus made it here.

He needs us to be blind to the plain truth that America botched the response to the pandemic worse than any country and has suffered far more casualties than any other nation.

He needs us to forget how stressed out so many of us were before the pandemic about not being able to afford anyone in their family getting sick and needing medical attention. Millions had no health insurance. Millions more had useless insurance with deductibles and co-pays so high they had to pay for all their care out of pocket and their pockets were empty.

He needs us to forget how we felt when we saw that video of a police officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

He needs us to think the raging wildfires on the west coast and one hurricane after another pounding the southern border are not telltale signs of climate catastrophe but merely the result of poor forest management, atmospheric accidents or just fake news.

That’s why he’s not debating his opponent and instead concentrates on gaslighting us. He knows the true threat to his grip on power is the common sense of the American people. He knows continuing to rule depends on enough of us questioning our own sanity and concluding we can’t really be seeing that dumpster fire.

Mike McCabe

September 30, 2020


There’s No App for That

The promise of technology is that it can make our lives easier. Free us from “menial” labor, enable us to focus on more meaningful and uplifting tasks, provide us with more leisure time.

I don’t know, having to constantly monitor four separate email accounts feels more menial to me than milking a cow ever did. Being at the beck and call of every ring, beep or knocking sound coming from a palm-sized computer all day every day is pretty darned menial. And how many of us are working fewer hours these days? How many of us have more down time?

We’re all so busy that we haven’t the time to reflect on how positively Pavlovian technology is and how its every wish is our command. The promise of technology is that it will serve us. Most days it sure looks like it’s the other way around.

The reality of technology is that it consumes us in menial labor, just a different sort of toil than it promised to free us from. It leaves us with little or no time for reflection, and little or no time for some of the most meaningful and critically important human undertakings. Like active citizenship.

Technology also promises to make citizenship easier and more effective. I’ve been watching for years now as citizenship has been slowly but surely turned into clicktivism. We’ve been lulled into a false sense of civic engagement, one where we can exercise our duties as citizens without leaving home, without even getting up off the couch, without ever coming into contact with people who don’t share our political beliefs, without ever having to talk through our differences. Technology promises to free us from that messy business. Just click here and you’ve done democracy.

Oh, if it was only that easy. Democracy is fundamentally social. It involves personally dealing with people whose ideas we hate. It depends on the establishment and maintenance of relationships.

It’s not only technology working at cross purposes with this human endeavor. The pandemic has made it infinitely more challenging, no doubt about it. That’s why I’m not a fan of the term “social distancing.” Even as we need to keep our physical distance from one another during this public health emergency, it is terribly important that we find ways to remain socially connected. And not just with those who think like us.

Technology promises to make us an app for that. In the end, it will prove to be an empty promise. When it comes to repairing broken relationships, when it comes to speaking one’s truth and listening to another’s truth, when it comes to hashing out differences, artificial intelligence is no substitute for actual intelligence. And clicktivism is no substitute for actual citizenship.

Mike McCabe

September 17, 2020


How to Vote in the 2020 Election

2020 is a big election — in many ways the most important in our lifetimes — and it’s critical that registered voters take steps to make sure their votes count. Coronavirus and post office delays have complicated voting in Wisconsin, but it’s still very doable. The key is to start early.

Voter Registration

First, check to make sure you are registered to vote. Even if you think you are registered, even if you’ve voted in every election for decades, it’s important to check to make sure your registration status is correct.

You can check your voter registration status at

If you have legally changed your name or moved to a new address, you will need to update your voter record by submitting a new voter registration. You can do that or register to vote for the first time at

Early Voting by Absentee Ballot

You don’t have to wait until Election Day on November 3 to vote. You can vote early through an absentee ballot, which can be delivered in one of several ways. Here’s how.

Request a ballot

Once you know you are registered to vote, you can request that an absentee ballot be sent to you by visiting

You will need to provide a copy of your acceptable photo ID with your request if you have not previously provided a copy of your photo ID to the state. A list of acceptable photo IDs can be found at

Technically you have until 5 p.m. on Thursday, October 29, to make the request, but we recommend you request your ballot as soon as possible to ensure you get it in plenty of time to return it.

You can also check to make sure your absentee ballot request was received by visiting

Fill out your ballot and absentee certificate

You will either have an absentee ballot mailed to you, or you can print a copy of your ballot from an email or fax. If your ballot is sent to you, it will come with two items — the ballot itself and a return envelope which functions as your absentee ballot certificate.

To vote, you’ll need to mark your choices on the ballot. Then fold your filled-out ballot and place it inside the return envelope, but don’t use glue or tape to seal the envelope. Finally, make sure all the voter information on the return envelope is correct, and sign the Certification of Voter section.

If you print out your ballot and absentee ballot certificate, you will vote in the same way on the ballot itself. Next, fold your completed ballot and put it into a plain envelope. Then, fill out and sign the absentee ballot certificate and affix it to the front of the return envelope. Finally, put this envelope into a larger envelope for delivery to your municipal clerk.

If you make a mistake on your ballot, contact your municipal clerk’s office. You can find your municipal clerk at

Bring a friend

Wisconsin requires absentee voters to have a witness. So before you vote, show the witness your unmarked ballot, and mark the ballot in the presence of your witness. Your witness must see you vote but can’t tell you who to vote for or see the choices you make.

The witness can be a friend, spouse, family member, or neighbor, but must be a U.S. citizen who is at least 18 years old. The witness must sign your absentee ballot certificate in the Certification of Witness section with their name and address.

You can find complete instructions for filling out your absentee ballot here (pdf).

Return your ballot

You can return your ballot in one of four ways:

  • Mail it to your county clerk
  • Drop it off at your municipal clerk’s office
  • Drop it off at an absentee ballot drop box
  • Drop it off at your polling place on election day

We recommend that you drop your ballot off personally to either your municipal clerk’s office or a drop box location. You can find a list of drop box locations in your area by calling your municipal clerk.

If you decide to mail in your ballot, the U.S. Postal Service recommends putting it in the mail at least a week before Election Day. However, given slowdowns in mail service, we recommend sending it as soon as possible.

In order to be counted, your ballot must be delivered to your polling place no later than 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Early Voting In Person

If you don’t want to deal with an absentee ballot, you can also vote early in person up to two weeks before Election Day. Each city, village and town in Wisconsin is responsible for setting the dates and hours of in-person absentee voting for their municipality. To find the dates and hours for in-person absentee voting where you live, contact your municipal clerk.

Voting on Election Day

Finally, you can also vote at your polling place on Election Day, which will be Tuesday, November 3, 2020. Wisconsin voters are assigned a polling place based on their residential address. You can find your polling place by visiting

For more information on how to vote in Wisconsin, check these sources:

For a summary of how to vote early by absentee ballot, see the graphic below.


Labeling Us to Death

Senator Ed Markey did the unimaginable…beat a Kennedy in Massachusetts. Markey was challenged by Joe Kennedy III in his state’s September 1 primary election. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rarely takes sides in Democratic primaries but did in this one, throwing her support behind Kennedy. Pelosi and other top Democrats have considered it close to treasonous when insurgents like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez challenged incumbents in party primaries, but they openly backed Markey’s challenger in this one.

It sure looks like they wanted to send AOC a message. Markey wrote and introduced the Green New Deal resolution in Congress along with Ocasio-Cortez in 2019. He hasn’t had second thoughts, saying: “The Republicans, Fox News, they called the Green New Deal when Alexandria and I introduced it ‘socialism.’ Well, what do you call tax breaks for 100 years for the oil, for the gas, for the coal industries — the wealthiest industries in America shaking our money out of our pockets for tax breaks for them? What I say is: Give us some of that socialism for wind, and solar, and all-electric vehicles, and plug-in hybrids and storage battery technology. And we will be looking at the fossil-fuel industry in the rear-view mirror of history.”

That’s the way to do it. Don’t duck and cover when the S word gets thrown around. Throw it right back. They’re for socialism and protectionism for the rich and powerful and pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps survival of the fittest for the rest of us. Give us some of that socialism you’ve been lavishing on the rich.

It’s not just Democrats like Pelosi who are afraid of the insurgents. Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote a column recently warning Democrats not to fall in with the “far left.” That kind of talk from right wingers is like coaches speaking glowingly of their counterparts coaching teams they repeatedly beat. They don’t want those coaches fired. It makes their job harder. Republicans don’t want Democrats to actually stand for anything like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal. That would make their job harder. They know the majority of Americans want those things, not just the “far left.”

All of this brings me to something I wrote in my book Unscrewing America about how labels get slapped on people and policies to keep us all at each other’s throats, to divide and conquer us.

“As old labels indicate, we’ve all been conditioned to think about politics horizontally, from right to left. This way of thinking needlessly divides us by magnifying our differences and glossing over our commonalities. Turn the political spectrum on its head, and think top to bottom instead of left to right, and a magical thing can happen. Picture a man and a woman. He’s white. She’s black, He’s a farmworker, she’s a childcare provider. Both are struggling to make ends meet. He votes Republican, she votes for Democrats. On the old horizontal political spectrum, they are far apart, her on the left and him on the right. We see them as enemies. They see each other the same way. They are divided and conquered. Now think vertically. Who’s on top and who’s on the bottom? Who has the most money, and who has the least? Who has the power and who doesn’t? Whose voices are heard and whose aren’t? These two people are in the same spot on a vertical political spectrum and have more in common than they or we have been trained to see. Talking vertically involves talking about royals and commoners or have-lots and have-littles, not liberals and conservatives or left-wingers and right-wingers. Thinking vertically not only has the potential to unite those who are currently divided but also empower those who are presently conquered.”

Mike McCabe

September 2, 2020