By Michael Kazin,
who teaches history at Georgetown University and is author of "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan."
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington
By David Sirota
Crown. 385 pp. $25.95
This is a book in search of a movement. David Sirota, a 32-year-old progressive activist and journalist, spent a year on the road chronicling what he thinks are the stirrings of a mass revolt against the wealthy and the powerful. He may not have the Establishment quaking in its Guccis, but his always energetic, often ironic reporting certainly made the quest worthwhile.
Sirota spent most of his time getting to know grass-roots organizers and a few celebrities who think like organizers, all of them strong-willed Americans who like to rattle icons and challenge the comfortable. Near Puget Sound, he discovered a band of left-wing tech workers struggling to organize a union of part-timers at Microsoft's headquarters. In Dallas, he marveled as a group of shareholder activists, led by an eloquent nun named Pat Daly, faced down the CEO of ExxonMobil. In Manhattan, he met with true-believing staffers for "Lou Dobbs Tonight" as well as with the TV cynosure of anti-corporate, anti-alien fury himself. On the border between California and Mexico, he rode, cringing, with patrols of Minutemen who scoured the desert for illegal immigrants.
Finally, Sirota ended up at a convention of left-leaning bloggers, whom he sees as "the connective tissue that ties all of the outposts to each other -- the electronic version of the underground newspaper that has glued past uprisings together." What he witnessed on his cross-country journey is an embryonic movement that might transform the country, just as a broad stream of populist radicals and reformers including Eugene Debs and Jane Addams, W.E.B. Du Bois and Teddy Roosevelt did a century ago. Or, at least, that's what Sirota hopes he found.
Though he wears his ideology on his sleeve, Sirota's writing has none of the severity that stains much partisan prose. He makes fun of an Iraq war demonstrator who dresses as the Grim Reaper and carries a sign thanking Vice President Cheney "for keeping death in business this year." "The guy seems to have solid theme park experience," Sirota notes, "as he is actively posing for pictures with people much like a Disney mascot at Epcot Center." At CNN, he finds that Dobbs's lead producer is "married to a former illegal alien," a Brazilian who "overstayed her visa." Waiting in a Senate reception room, Sirota glances at a portrait of John C. Calhoun, the great defender of the indefensible institution of slavery, and observes, "Calhoun had Elvis's pompadour about a century before Elvis did."
Alas, Sirota is a better reporter than political analyst. He gets some of his history wrong. For example, the Bonus Army that marched on Washington in 1932 demanded cash, not "medical benefits," and neither Canada nor Finland is now or has ever been a "socialist" country.
Nor can one have much confidence in Sirota's claim that a variety of popular discontents may soon be converted into one big populist movement. He reports solely on projects dominated by white people, and he avoids the hard question of what an avowed communist who's trying to organize Microsoft employees has in common with a Minuteman who believes impoverished Mexicans are a dire threat to the nation's security. Some valiant members of "the uprising," such as Sister Pat and her allies, have been working on the same issues since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. Others, including the Iraq war protesters and the angriest man at CNN, were roused to action only by President George W. Bush's multiple debacles. Their prospects, individual and collective, depend largely on the outcome of this fall's election and on how U.S. policymakers and corporations navigate the whitewaters of the global economy.
That Sirota chose to call these rebels "populist" only adds to the confusion. Populism is a notoriously promiscuous concept. Conservatives use the term as a cultural weapon to bash academics, liberal movie stars and Democrats who don't wear flag pins. Progressives wield it as an economic cudgel against financiers and anti-union bosses. Commentators muse about politicians playing the populist card, as if it were nothing but a rhetorical tactic, available to any candidate at almost any time. Rooting for certain kinds of self-declared populists while accusing all the others of committing terminological fraud is no way to understand the phenomenon, either historically or now.
Still, "The Uprising" is a hard book to dislike or dismiss. Sirota reports cleverly and in pleasing detail about a complex world of political conflict that the journalistic throng obsessed with presidential candidates and their handlers seldom notices. But his book opens with the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, evoking a revolutionary purpose his narratives don't support. It may have been more appropriate to omit Thomas Jefferson and quote Stephen Stills instead: "There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear."