Hot Under the Collar
In a new book, former Sanders aide David Sirota asks what it will take to build a populist movement
In the opening pages of his forthcoming book, David Sirota is reeling on a bathroom floor in Las Vegas’ Riviera Hotel. The setting: the first YearlyKos Convention, an annual gathering of Internet-based activists, citizen journalists and progressive political operatives, collectively known as the Netroots. Drunk and “freshman-year-at-college sick,” Sirota, a political journalist and former aide to then-Rep. Bernie Sanders, is nonetheless raring to go. He’s decided to spend the next 12 months on the ground with the “fist-pounding, primal-screaming revolt” taking shape across America.
As promised, by the end of The Uprising, it’s August 2007, and Sirota is preparing to leave Chicago, site of YearlyKos II. He’s drinking airport beer and reflecting on his pilgrimage while surfing the Web for the latest news from the front. He checks in online with the Working Families Party, founded in 1998 in New York by a coalition of labor unions and community activists. He reads an email from Montana, where, in 2004, Brian Schweitzer became the first Democrat in 16 years to be elected governor of that reddest of states. Another missive comes from the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, a white-collar union organized a decade ago to oppose the off-shoring of high-tech jobs. Before boarding his flight, Sirota receives yet another message from the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, whose members hold more than $100 billion in shares of companies such as ExxonMobil and Wal-Mart.
The Uprising is Sirota’s second book and is very much of an emotional piece with his first, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government — and How We Take It Back. That emotion is rage — and, as Sirota shows us with engaging, on-the-ground reportage, it’s simmering on both sides of the political divide.
A card-carrying member of the progressive Netroots, Sirota here ventures into enemy territory, as it were. The “unauthorized” part of his itinerary includes a tag-along with the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, which patrols the Mexican border looking for illegal immigrants to roust. He visited the set of CNN’s “The Lou Dobbs Report” without the consent of the network’s suits, and snuck into an annual meeting of ExxonMobil shareholders with a nun.
Sirota also returned to Capitol Hill to visit his former boss, now Senator Sanders. But for security reasons, to spend time with the lawmaker in the halls of Congress, he had to persuade a congressional staffer to “hire” him as an intern. Sirota recounts this episode in a chapter called “The Permanent Barrier,” his term for the institutions — from superdelegates to the media to corporate lobbyists to the “protest industry” — that stand in the way of disparate uprisings trying to become full-throated populist movements.
Sirota notes that America has been down this road many times. The trust-busting Progressive era, the New Deal, the Vietnam-era antiwar campaign, the candidacies of George Wallace, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader — all were fueled by an angry backlash against what was perceived as an entrenched and corrupt status quo.
He also points out that populist movements have had “mixed success.” In fact, by the end of The Uprising, Sirota’s own idealism has been tamped down a bit. “Are these the visions of what can be?” he asks himself. “Or are they merely apparitions . . .”
Sirota said he decided to launch his two-month nationwide book tour in Burlington, on May 27, because Vermont is where he got his start in progressive politics. It’s also a state, he told Seven Days in an interview last week from his home in Denver, that “has been ahead of the curve” on issues fueling the populist uprising elsewhere.
“I think Bernie is a reflection of that,” Sirota said. “His ability to win in both Burlington and parts of the Northeast Kingdom shows the uniqueness of Vermont politics, and it actually shows the best, shining example of how you can have a populist politics that does redefine American politics across boundaries that we think are intractable.”
SEVEN DAYS: You document a lot of anger among different groups and interests in The Uprising. What’s driving these people to act?
DS: In the book, I call it subjugation psychology — this sense of grievance, a backlash of anger at what’s going on. In some ways, it’s a desire for political retribution . . . It’s also a question of what political activism is all about. Right now, political activism is defined by social issues, cultural issues. I’m not saying they aren’t important, but I think right now we face a moment where there might be a fundamental realignment, of people seeing political activism, first and foremost, as an economic endeavor.
SD: One uprising you write about is occurring among well-paid, white-collar workers who aren’t known for collective action. Did that surprise you?
DS: The quote that stuck out in that chapter is, they don’t see themselves as garbage collectors and teamsters. But they are starting to think in the same economic terms, which is amazing. These are the kind of people, in an industry, who should be most antithetical to that. The tech world is entrepreneurial. The workers have more affinity to management than typical workers. Yet that’s starting to break down, and I think it’s because of the economic forces that have created this backlash.
SD: You note the history of progressive populist movements, such as the New Deal, the civil-rights movement and others. Yet, in recent times, conservatives have had better success channeling populist sentiments into actual change. Why is that?
DS: Everything is gradual, but I would say the moment was 1980, when one of the conservative uprising’s ideologues [Ronald Reagan] became the president, and over the last 20, 25 years, that movement has dominated. In many ways it really has been a real grassroots movement. But we’re at a situation now where that movement has, I think, run its course.
SD: What accounts for the end of this particular era?
DS: Back then, there was certainly anger at the government, but people still showed confidence in big business and the financial system. Now, not only is confidence in Congress and in the presidency as an institution gone, but confidence in basic societal institutions like business and banks and the financial system has also crumbled. It’s compounded by the fact that the conservative movement, in the public’s mind and in reality, has aligned itself or become synonymous with corruption. I think that actually bodes well for a progressive populism. Progressives are in a much better position to offer a critique of corporate power than conservatives are.
SD: Do you think there will be a galvanizing moment for progressives, like 1980 was for conservatives?
DS: It’s possible. I have an audiovisual presentation I’m going to be giving on the tour that actually likens what we’re going through now to pre-election 1980 . . . There are really, really close similarities. There was an oil crisis, a financial crisis in ’79. There was obviously the Middle East crisis with the hostage situation in Iran. It’s very analogous to what’s going on now: oil crisis, financial crisis, Middle East crisis.
SD: You begin and end The Uprising at the epicenter of the Netroots — the YearlyKos convention. You also mention research that found that Internet-based political activists are largely white, well educated and well-to-do. Does that demographic bode well or ill for a progressive uprising?
DS: You know, you can’t really be a movement without being broad-based, without being grassroots, without giving up control, without being small-D democratic. The problem is that the Netroots and MoveOn and various other institutions don’t just have trouble with democracy; they’re completely undemocratic. The leaders decide what they want to do and who the leaders are, and that’s the end of it. The only channels of influence are the ones that the people leading it decide to offer out of the goodness of their hearts. I think that that can weaken or prevent an uprising from becoming a movement.
SD: Are any of the candidates for the White House capable of connecting with the uprising?
DS: I certainly think that Barack Obama comes out of a place that is more prone to understanding this. He was a community organizer, and when you learn about the actual internal mechanics of his campaign, it’s not really a command-and-control operation from national headquarters. But I think we fool ourselves by thinking any candidate is a movement. Movements exist independently of candidates to pressure them. Candidates are vehicles for movements. Interestingly enough, I think the fact that Obama has been, in some sense, not really paying much attention to the Netroots or to MoveOn is a commentary on the state of where the movement is.
SD: How so?
DS: MoveOn is now jumping on to endorse [Obama], putting a lot of machinery into just airing ads for him. That’s a commentary on the fact that MoveOn hasn’t differentiated itself as a movement. It has become, in many ways, a candidate vehicle. They really haven’t differentiated themselves as an organization that will pressure Democrats on issues . . . That’s the difference between organizations that are closer to broadening and expanding and building a real movement and organizations that are still in that primordial uprising stage.
SD: What organizations do you see actually “expanding and building” on the populist uprising in a promising way?
DS: The Working Families Party, for one, will still have a lot of work to be done if Barack Obama is elected president. Their existence is not in any way threatened by a Barack Obama presidency. The labor movement is not in any way threatened by a Barack Obama presidency. There will be disagreements on issues, but its fundamental existence is not threatened.
SD: You found a lot of populist anger on the right, as well. What if John McCain were elected president?
DS: The conservative politicians and the conservative movement became, around the early 2000s, one and the same. I think McCain, if he were to become president, would recreate a niche for an ideological grassroots conservative movement. I actually think some conservatives are thinking maybe the best thing to have happen would be for John McCain to become president. Then they’d have a reason to rebuild a conservative movement to put pressure on him. I think McCain’s critics have not only fallen in line because he’s a fellow Republican, but they realize he will create space for a rebuilding of the conservative ideological movement.
SD: You cite numerous examples of the establishment media’s disdain for, and even fear of, populist uprisings. How has that influenced the political landscape?
DS: I think people get a sense that the media is just as different and odious as the politicians. I think a lot of people see it as all one corrupt, immoral, out-of-touch blob. The forces that have made the media like this are really powerful — the corporate media, media consolidation, the culture of Washington political media, where pundits are friends of the people they are covering. It’s all just one class of people. I will say the silver lining is, as newspapers struggle right now, there is clearly an audience for a different kind of media.
SD: You obviously see Lou Dobbs as someone who can reach this audience.
DS: I think Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly — who I can’t stand, and I have problems with some of the things Dobbs says — show there is a potentially large audience for media figures and institutions that know how to represent that populism and that sense of power-challenging independence.
SD: At the end of The Uprising, you question whether, despite the growing influence of the Netroots, the progressive uprising can become a full-fledged movement. Why?
DS: The political topography is out there for this to become a real movement, but it will take a real appreciation among the participants about what a real movement is. A movement is a lot of different things, but first and foremost, it’s something that ordinary people feel ownership over. Right now, a lot of it is still focused on a media strategy, on an inside-pressure strategy. There’s this obsession with the media glamour of politics, as opposed to politics as a vehicle for change, whether you get media attention or not. I don’t have an answer to whether progressives will get past that.
From The Uprising
Up until August of 1999, I was your typical brainwashed suburban Democrat. Democrats were great, Republicans were evil, and that was about as complex as it got for me. I carried this simpleton mind-set into my work with Sanders, until about a month into the job, when I made my very first trip to Vermont.
As the US Airways prop plane from D.C. swung back and forth in a gusty breeze over Lake Champlain, my white-knuckled fright subsided momentarily when [an aid] told me I’d be accompanying Sanders to a Vermont town meeting during my visit. I chuckled at the term “Vermont town meeting,” thinking of ultraconservative Pilgrims in an Independence Hall-like building being stirred into an angry froth by a stern-faced preacher demanding the local witch and warlock be burned at the stake.
Funny, the scene at St. Michael’s College in Burlington was a lot like that.
Though no one was wearing black shoes or hats with gold buckles on them or eating a big Thanksgiving turkey with Indians, a throng of seven hundred middle-aged IBM workers that summer evening was whipped into a frenzy by a congressman — my new boss — delivering an economic sermon on the mount. Long arms in the air, he verbally crucified Big Blue for its recent decision to slash promised retirement benefits. He specifically laced into IBM’s CEO Lou Gerstner for paying himself $14 million a year while telling workers their pensions “were not worth the paper that they had been written on.”
. . . That this meeting of white-collar Republican-leaning tech workers was organized by America’s most famous socialist convinced me just how little I — and many others — understood about the guy I was now working for. At the beginning of the night, these folks were the antithesis of what you would expect to be a welcoming audience for a congressman derided as a “leftist” or a kook by the media. They were a murmuring group of buttoned up, golf-on-Saturday, church-and-football-on-Sunday Rotarians. After about an hour with Sanders, they were a fist-pumping mob of radicalized rage — an uprising that went on to organize itself and successfully fight IBM’s cutbacks.
They had fallen under the trance of one of Sanders’s special uprising spells: the ability to package complex economic issues into us-versus-them, you’re-with-me-or-you’re-against-me choices. In this particular case, he cut straight through the spin from IBM’s press flacks and contrasted the pension cutbacks with IBM’s profits and its CEO’s paycheck. On other complex issues — from trade to drug prices to agricultural subsidies — it’s the same method, and his fight-for-the-little-guy consistency has given him the haloed straight-shooter image that every politician dreams of — the one where people say “I may not agree with him on everything, but I know where he’s coming from.”