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Tuesday, 27 May 2008 00:58

David Sirota Sees A Populist Revolt Brewing -- One That Takes on Corporations and Washington's Old Ways

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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

We have a trade and a globalization policy that is designed to create a race to the bottom among ordinary people. When you force American workers into direct unfettered competition with workers who are enslaved, with workers who are allowed to be paid a dollar a day, with workers who are allowed to be employed in sweatshops, you are creating a wage-cutting environment that's destroying competition towards the bottom.

-- David Sirota, author, The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington

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You can read about David Sirota's background on his blog, which we link to at the bottom of this interview. But what is important to know is that Sirota, the former press secretary for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, is an indefatigable articulator of how the corporations have come to call the shots in D.C. But Sirota doesn't see that as inevitable. He is an optimist that the grassroots populism of America can be reborn and that democracy can return to being a vital force in determining our national policy. He is an author, activist, political strategist, columnist and general political renaissance person. He is so frank and devastatingly perceptive that a lot of mainstream publications don't want to publish his writings because they are a threat to the corporate rule of America.

We got to know David when he was working for Sanders, then a congressman. They are two mensches who won't stop fighting and speaking out about the need for a return to a populist understanding of our government and the redistribution of economic wealth in the American society to achieve economic justice.

It would have been easier for Sirota to pull a few punches and get wider distribution of his column and more mainstream media coverage of his book, but it wouldn't cross his mind for a moment to be anything other than straightforward with the truth about the promise of democracy and the threat of a government ruled by corporations and "K Street" lobbyists.

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BuzzFlash: David, first we want to encourage all the BuzzFlash readers to buy and read The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington. The mainstream corporate media is probably not your biggest fan, so we want to do our best to promote the book.

David Sirota: That's exactly right.

BuzzFlash: Why don't they like you?

David Sirota: I think the frame of the book tells it all. The book is about a backlash to the status quo. It's about a backlash to the media and political establishment. It's a sequel in many ways, to my first book, Hostile Takeover, which is about big money taking over the government. This book is about the uprising against that "Hostile Takeover." Obviously, the people and forces and institutions that have perpetrated that hostile takeover are going to be hostile to a book that describes the uprising against that establishment. When you tell the truth, sometimes people don't like it.

BuzzFlash: You're going to be going around the country on a populist book tour of your own.

David Sirota: That's right. I'll be in 30 or 35 cities - grassroots events all over the country and in almost every region of the country. When I talked to my publisher about doing this book, I said it was very important to have a grassroots campaign strategy to get the book out there, both because that respects the principle - the uprising or movement principle that's described in the book - and because it's the way to create a direct conduit to people without having to rely only on the media filter.

BuzzFlash: Brian Williams, an NBC anchor, works for General Electric. At ABC, George Stephanopoulos works for Disney. Katie Couric at CBS, works for Viacom. CNN is part of Time-Warner. We all know about Fox News. So the corporate world that you described, and their K Street lobbyists -- those corporations are very much involved with the hostile takeover in Washington that you described in your first book, and they are the same corporations that are filtering the news and getting it to the masses in America.

David Sirota: That's right, and that's a huge thing that people sometimes people forget -- that corporate control of the media is more than just a certain network won't cover the parent company. It's actually a whole ideology. And the ideology is deeply ingrained. The media does not question corporate issues -- the concentration of corporate power, the general deregulatory agenda that corporations push. Most issues relating to money and the accumulation of profits are either off limits, or soft-pedaled in the corporate media, because the corporate media is not objective when it comes to those things. It has an ideology.

A television station owned by General Electric has an underlying interest in not questioning the regulatory regime or the ideology that has allowed General Electric to become a giant corporation and commit, in some cases, some acts that the public doesn't like. That's really what the book is about -- the public waking up to this, the public understanding that there is an alternate reality, the reality that we all live in, an alternate reality to that which is presented to us through the media.

And this book is about the public backlash to the fake reality that we're being presented in the media. It talks about different uprisings against this establishment, whether it's the anti-war uprising, whether it's a third-party uprising in New York, whether it's, on the right, the Minutemen, whether it's efforts to unionize the high-tech industry.

And I want to be clear. I'm not making a value judgment on any of these uprisings. I really went into this book as a journalist first, and I cover both the right and left. And I - what I'm aiming to do first and foremost is not pass a value judgment on each of these different uprisings, whether, you know - again, from the third parties in New York to the Minutemen or for unionization efforts. My job in this book was about reporting on it, covering it, and looking at the truth of them. What is everybody reacting to? What are the prospects of success? And these are questions that the mainstream media just isn't interested in.

BuzzFlash: Mostly, the Republicrats have been in power since the Reagan administration. But you were press secretary to Bernie Sanders when we first got to know you. Bernie is a good friend of BuzzFlash -- we interviewed him recently -- and it seems that he's one of the few people and that you're one of the few journalists that gets this idea about globalization.

NAFTA, of course, has come up in this race. But what about the idea that corporations now, to a great degree, have usurped sovereignty? Both parties have really yielded sovereignty to global corporations, in many ways, through NAFTA. The trade agreements can now go around even national laws in countries, and supersede laws in certain areas. You talk about this in Hostile Takeover, but this has such enormous implications.

David Sirota: That's right, because you're dealing at a global level, and these issues just seem so complex, they require expertise to be understood. In some ways, I think they're actually designed to seem complex, and to seem so technical, in order to disengage the public from them.

I would tell you, as a weekly newspaper columnist, writing about trade and globalization is one of the most challenging things to do, and I do it very often. When it's a week that I'm going to write a column about trade and globalization, I know it's going to be a tough week, because a lot of the issues are really, really technical.

But when you step back for a second and you actually look at them from a distance, they're not that hard to understand. We have a trade and a globalization policy that is designed to create a race to the bottom among ordinary people. When you force American workers into direct unfettered competition with workers who are enslaved, with workers who are allowed to be paid a dollar a day, with workers who are allowed to be employed in sweatshops, you are creating a wage-cutting environment that's destroying competition towards the bottom.

And it's the same thing as it relates to all of the rules in these trade and globalization policies. The reason why a free trade deal is thousands of pages long is not because it's a free trade deal. If all you wanted to do was lower tariffs, it would be one page long, and it would say "no tariffs."

The rest of the thousands and thousands of pages are protections for corporate profits. You have trade bureaus in developing world countries that our government insists protect pharmaceutical patents, so pharmaceutical companies can keep their prices high in the developing world. You have trade rules that say a corporation under the rules of the trade deal can sue a government -- a state government, a local government, a national government -- if the government passes a public interest law that the corporation says cuts into their profits. So if a state government passes a clean water law, for example, and a factory can make the case that that clean water law is going to inhibit their profits, they can sue for the overturning of that law. Literally, a multinational corporation can overturn a law passed by a democratically elected government.

These are really huge issues. I would actually submit to you that they're among the biggest issues that we face, mainly because all of the domestic laws on economic issues are affected by them. We can raise the minimum wage all we want in our country. But if we have a trade policy that encourages companies to outsource jobs to countries where they only pay a worker a dollar a day, no amount of minimum wage laws in this country is really going to cure that situation and stop that race to the bottom from happening.

BuzzFlash: I just think this is so important. We rarely have a chance to talk about it, although, Naomi Klein, of course, is another person who discusses this. There are very few people who are willing to take on these forces that are kind of hidden in the background because of the media filters. Much of the focus turns to non-issues, like the idea of patriotism, as we saw in that infamous ABC debate in Philadelphia where George Stephanopoulos asked Obama if he thought his Reverend was as patriotic as he was, as if any of that had to do with anything regarding the future of the United States. But the buzzword of patriotism, the hot button of the lapel pins, the flag, -- all of this sense of nationalism is fed to the masses, while the corporations are really becoming the new global United Nations, except that it's united corporations.

Would you agree that, really, part of the what's happened is this disdain among the ruling elite, the Washington, D.C. insiders, and their view that the United Nations is passé, because really we've replaced the United Nations with a rule by corporatocracy?

David Sirota: I think that's absolutely right. I think that the main issues in Washington that really warrant the most attention, are those that deal with whether to regulate the corporatocracy or whether to let it expand. Those are really the most important fights. Those are the ones that corporate lobbyists are most attuned to. For the last three decades, we have been watching an expansion of that corporate power, and a contraction of our government's willingness to regulate the market, to regulate unbridled capitalism, to make sure that it works for ordinary people.

I do think that the uprising is a backlash to that. I think we are at a precipice. If you look at public opinion data, if you look at the stories in my book, The Uprising, you will see that all of this is boiling now, and that this election and what comes out of the election could end up changing the direction of the country in a really serious way, in an exponential way.

You have to remember that movements often impact the trajectory of the world in an exponential way, rather than a gradual way. A lot of under-the-radar work, when it finally starts bearing fruit, can bear fruit very, very quickly and very, very dramatically. So I think that if you look at public opinion data, if you look at what's going on across the country, we could be entering into an era where we see really, really a fast pace of change. You could see a scrapping of the entire trade model that has dominated the globe for the last thirty years. You could see that very quickly. You could see a reinvigoration and a reconstruction of a civil society of Great Society programs that rebuild the social safety net. I just think we're at a really exciting time now.

In addition to this, as one corollary, this could all go in an ugly direction. Depending on how the election goes and where the trajectory of this population goes, it could go into some ugly directions. You could have more xenophobia. You could have more racism. You could have certainly an escalation in militarism, whether through escalating the Iraq war itself or war in Iran. It's a very vulnerable time right now.

BuzzFlash: Let's look into examples of populism. The basic thesis of your book and what you did in going around the country was to show examples that there is, largely off the radar screen of mainstream media, a populist revolt. Populism has been a bad word in the past few decades in the mainstream media, as though populism is something that is radical, when really it is the form of the most basic form of democracy. But in any case, let's take an example on the right and the left. On the right, there's the Minutemen. They're populist, right, in their own way?

David Sirota: Absolutely. Certain aspects of the Minutemen fit into a definition of conservative populism. The polls show that the public is concerned about a porous border. The public is concerned about illegal immigration. It doesn't necessarily mean that most of the public is anti-Hispanic. What I think the polling data shows, and what I think the Minutemen are a manifestation of, is less a racist impulse, although that is certainly there among some people in the Minutemen, but more a fear that national security is not being taken care of.

Actually, I think you can trace this, as I do in the book, to show that the Minutemen are a direct product of post-9/11 fear mongering. When you actually talk to the Minutemen, you listen to them talk to each other, much of what drives them is a fear that the border situation is going to create another terrorist attack.

Certainly I believe that their focus on the southern border as opposed to the northern border with Canada, which is just as porous, indicates a cultural sensibility that certainly has racial overtones. More specifically, the feel of terrorist infiltration among the Minutemen is much more aimed at a border with a Hispanic population or a non-white population than to a border with another white population. So there are certainly a lot of cultural and xenophobic and race-based strands in the Minutemen. But bottom line, this is a very clear form of conservative populism.

BuzzFlash: Now let's look at MoveOn.org, which is a tremendous organization. They certainly are an example of populism on the progressive side. But you detail that they ran into a problem in the anti-war movement by relying on Washington insiders.

David Sirota: I think MoveOn ran into a problem, as a form of progressive populism, and in terms of how it's been implemented as it relates to trying to stop the war. I think it doesn't yet have a full understanding of or appreciation for or willingness to engage in real movement building. Real movement building requires less of a focus on Washington, D.C. and the media, and the short-term mainstream corporate media cycle. Movement building is about organizing far away from Washington, D.C., organizing far away from the media spotlight.

A real grassroots movement requires that kind of structure and that kind of organizing to exert real power. As Sherrod Brown, the Senator from Ohio, said to me, Washington, D.C. is the last place that change occurs. It's not the first. Change does not emanate out of the Senate, out of Washington, and then move down to the people. Change billows up, and Washington is the last place that reacts to change. So as I say in the chapter about MoveOn, I certainly think that they've got the right goals. But I think that part of the uprising hasn't yet appreciated what a successful movement has to look like to exert its will.

BuzzFlash: In the anti-war movement, you had all this populism. You had a great deal of energy. There was a populist movement on the streets -- there still is somewhat. MoveOn is still scheduling protests and so forth. But at some point, all the populist anti-war groups and others got together and had a kind of war council in Washington, and they started using traditional lobbyists and playing an insider's game. Then got stuck in a morass.

David Sirota: That's exactly right. I think that they made some strategic mistakes. I think that they did not, for instance, bring to bear real serious pressure against Democrats, and I think that really, really set the anti-war movement and the anti-war cause back, in a big way.

You keep hearing, oh, the Democrats don't have enough senators to pass a bill that would legislatively say the war has to end. They need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. But by that same math, the Democrats certainly could filibuster a bill to continue the war, or to continue funding the war. And that hasn't happened. The anti-war movement hasn't ever made that kind of demand with any kind of serious pressure or threats. I think that that was a strategic mistake, and I think that mistake was motivated by that insiderism, in part. If you're playing an inside game and you're relying on Washington insiders, and in some cases, if you're relying on people who are dually employed by both the anti-war movement and Democratic politicians, you are going to be less likely to make decisions to actually challenge and pressure those same Democratic officeholders. There are conflicts of interest there. There's some insiderism. There's some cronyism. There's a lot of baggage that comes along with focusing most of your energy on that insider game.

BuzzFlash: We have nothing but admiration for MoveOn, but you do idenitfy a problem in terms of how they and some other anti-war groups go caught up in the briar patch of D.C. One of the things that your book does is to kind of scorch on people's brains that populism, at its best, is outside of D.C. creating pressures and creating an alternative prism through which politicians, when they come back to their home fronts, can see things. It's about people telling the government what to do.

It's a very different approach whether we accept the status quo and play by the rules of D.C. where, as you say, the Congress is beholden to the lobbyists -- and those lobbyists get paid generally whether they deliver or not. If you hire the same people who represent the Democratic Party candidates, to push an anti-war message, it's a conundrum, because the lobbyists and consultants that are hired often have a "perceived centrist" bias and thus didn't wholeheartedly push for an end to the war.. Populism at its most fundamental core does occur in communities and in states. It brings the local message through local activity, and therefore changes the prism, which need to move from the communities of America to D.C., not the other way around, particularly when the multi-billion dollar corporations have so many D.C. lawmakers in their pockets.

David, we thank you for a truly enlightening book, The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington.

David Sirota: Thank you.

BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.

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Resources

The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington by David Sirota, a BuzzFlash premium.

David Sirota's Blog: http://www.credoaction.com/sirota/index.html

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

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