Book World: 'The Uprising'

David Sirota
Political Columnist, Author of "The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington"
Wednesday, June 4, 2008; 12:00 PM

Author and political columnist David Sirota, who was a senior campaign strategist to Democrat Brian Schweitzer in his successful run for governor of Montana, was online Wednesday, June 4 at noon ET to discuss his new book, " The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington," and how the resurgence of Western populism could reshape the political map in November.

Book World review: Rooting for a Revolution (Post, June 4)

The transcript follows.

Sirota will be giving a reading and signing books at 6 p.m. tonight at Borders on L Street in Washington. Sirota is also the author of "Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government -- And How We Take It Back." He is a co-chair of the Progressive States Network and a senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future. His other political work has included advising Ned Lamont, who defeated Sen. Joe Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic primary (before losing to Lieberman, then running as an independent, in the general); chief spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee; and press secretary for independent Vermont Rep. Bernard Sanders.


Madison, Wis.: In what was does the populist uprising challenge the dominance of transnational capital? Can a fragmented populist movement successfully challenge the corporatist framework -- from agribusiness and energy to voting and media reform? Or does the success of such a movement to restore participatory democracy require a condensing of efforts behind a unique rallying point?

David Sirota: This is a great question -- I think some condensing needs to take place, and as I say in the book, it's not clear that condensing is going to happen. I think there's a good chance it will around unifying issues like opposing NAFTA-style trade deals, raising wages, regulating oil companies, etc. But never underestimate the forces of the status quo to divide that unity through cultural, racial, and fear-based messages.


Freising, Germany: Do you think that the rise of Internet blogging and the ability to pick and choose your own biased source of news has encouraged the re-emergence of populist politics on the right and left?

David Sirota: Yes, I do -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think people can now find anti-establishment viewpoints much more easily than they could have in the past. And I think that is starting to make people realize that the reality being fed to us by those in power is not the reality of the world. Part of the backlash that this uprising is about is a backlash to a media that is increasingly seen as part of the problem -- not part of the solution.


Seattle: What's been your biggest surprise on the book tour so far?

David Sirota: The acceptance by many progressives that we have to start looking at where we can make common cause with rank-and-file conservatives. In such a polarized political environment I expected that thesis in my book to be met with hostility on the left -- but in fact I think people are starting to get the idea that we have to find commonalities with the other side.


Harrisburg: How does the populist movement fight the huge costs of getting elected -- costs that I note have escalated in the past few decades -- and the fact the press won't take a congressional candidate seriously unless that candidate has a quarter of a million dollars up front?

David Sirota: I think the Internet's use as a fundraising instrument -- and specifically as an instrument of small-dollar fundraising -- has allowed candidates who use it properly to feel more free of big money interests than before -- and therefore to more aggressively try to represent the uprising when in office. That said, Big Money interests still have huge influence in politics, and that's why if this uprising is going to become a successful movement, it will have to put public financing of campaigns as a central part of its agenda.


Harrisburg, Pa.: You have advised a governor. What can state governments do to best extend progressive policies? How much impact might taking such actions as making tax collections more progressive, increasing the minimum wage, and creating tax breaks for business collections have if we could get a large number of states together to take such actions?

David Sirota: I'm glad you asked this question -- in the din of the presidential election, we often forget all the other arenas of change like state legislatures. In the 1980s, conservatives focused on state legislatures for their uprising through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council -- they knew that states could wield a huge amount of power on all sorts of issues because states deal with the most important area of government: money.

States can do all sorts of things -- crack down on corporate crime (see Colorado's upcoming ballot initiative), make taxes more progressive (see the first chapter of my book), and even get involved in reforming our international trade policies through their procurement policies (see Public Citizen's website). So it's not what states can or can't do -- it's what this uprising is willing to invest in states in terms of activism and pressure that will determine how much states will do.


Chicago: Hey David, Why hasn't the federal bailout of the financial sector elicited more outrage from populists?

David Sirota: I think it has in the sense that the headlines about it have only reinforced the idea that the government no longer even pretends to work for regular people. So while people may not be thinking explicitly "I don't like that the government gave Bear Stearns a lot of money" I think they are thinking more generally that "wow, this government is really out of control."


Alexandria, Va.: So with this new movement, how hopeful can we be about enacting a 100 percent estate tax soon?

David Sirota: Pretty far away, I'd say, because tax reform is probably the toughest part of this uprising. Then again, if you read the first chapter of the book, you will see that the tax debate is finally starting to thaw from the right-wing freeze. Thirty years of conservative propaganda on taxes has set back the tax debate incredibly far. So getting a progressive tax debate about tax inequality going will certainly happen, it is going to be a gradual process.


Crestwood, N.Y.: Haven't read your book yet (but I plan to) and don't know how you answered this question: If the president-elect isn't named Paul, Huckabee or Kucinich, exactly what does Wall Street have to fear? Aren't the hedge fund trillionaires all in bed with Obama and the Democrats? As for Mc Cain and his good pal Sen. Gramm ... well, don't make me laugh.

There has been zero impact from the golden-parachute scandals, Enron, etc., etc.; the confidence game under the guise of "deregulation" continues. Barring a 1929-style crash, I don't see how we get a populist reform and overhaul of our financial sector, nor do I see how a President Obama who tries to do the right thing succeeds in this gargantuan task. Do you?

David Sirota: I think you are right - there is less for Wall Street to fear from the presidential candidates. But one of the key points my book makes is that presidential politics is really only one avenue of making change in a democratic society. The book talks about how there are all sorts of other arenas to make change -- both electoral and in terms of direct action. In the electoral arena, we can pressure state government to crackdown on financial abuse (anyone remember Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's record?). In the direct action arena, workers can unionize their workplace to bargain collectively (last year was the first uptick in union membership in many years).

So the myth that the media foists on us about presidential politics being the only avenue of change is just that -- a myth. And its a pernicious myth, because it distracts our attention from the other arenas where we can really make a difference -- and where the uprising IS really making a difference.


Minneapolis: Now that we know the two major party candidates, can you compare their relative abilities to inspire support as populists? The conventional wisdom would seem to say Obama has it, McCain does not. Is this simple, obvious answer the correct one?

David Sirota: I don't think its as simple as that in terms of these two candidates. McCain has shown a populist streak in his past legislation and rhetoric against Big Money interests. That legislation and rhetoric may now be a thing of the past -- but he may well resurrect it in the general election. Obama certainly could harness this uprising -- and I think he has to some extent in the primary. But he will have to get comfortable with a more full-throated populist economic message on issues like trade and globalization. Neither candidate has shown any desire to be a real class-based populist -- but the candidate who does realize the power of that kind of politics will harness this uprising and probably be elected President.


Boston: Hey David -- if you had to point to an economist who conveys your views, who would it be? Michael Hudson, Robert Pollin, Karl Marx?

David Sirota: Ha-Joon Chang.


Los Angeles: A flaw with U.S. capitalism is that Bear Stearns's chairman can receive $61 million after leading the company to its demise, billions in shareholder losses and a government-backed bailout. Formerly, Republicans championed limited government regulations (perhaps because regulated company officials make large political contributions) but Bush killed that Republican brand with regulatory expansion through the Patriot Act, leading to reduced civil liberties. Now Bushies want to expand regulation of financial markets. One wonders if these new regulations would've exposed Elliot Spitzer's hooker uses sooner than Patriot Act SARs.

I have some new regulations to propose: Bar federal employees regulating banks, brokerages and hedge funds from working for these companies until a reasonable period has expired, say three to five years (helps avoid conflicts of interest, such as what occurred in the in 2002-2003 Boeing-Pentagon scandal). Purchasers of a stock that experiences dramatic decline in stock price within 60-90 days of purchase (e.g. Bear Stearns going from more than $100 to $2 since Dec 2007) should be able to reverse the transaction if the purchase decision was based on fraudulent or grossly inaccurate accounting information the company reported. If grossly inaccurate or fraudulent information is discovered, all bonuses paid to company and brokerage officials based on such information should be subject to recovery by regulators and paid to company shareholders.

David Sirota: These are the kinds of proposals I expect to bubble up as the financial meltdown gets worse, and the public gets more angry.


Washington: Hi David. I enjoyed reading your book very much, and blogged about it. One of the questions I had in my blog post was about the phenomenon of many, many people self-identifying as political independents in the U.S. (about 40 percent of the electorate) in rejection of the two major parties. I was wondering: What do you think of that phenomenon in relation to the various uprisings happening all over the country? And what do you think of the efforts to try and harness that widespread dissatisfaction into a political movement -- specifically, the efforts of the Committee for a Unified Independent Party, or CUIP?

David Sirota: I think the increase in self-identified independents is an expression of anger. I'm not sure self-identified independents are actually voting much differently than they did before -- that is to say, I think many people who call themselves independent also continue to vote with one party reliably. However, the change in party registration/affiliation is certainly people saying they've had it with what's going on. The question is whether that initial step will lead to more constructive activism...


Silver Spring, Md.: It is a fact that there is considerably more excitement and interest in the "battle" between fundamentally mainstream candidates than in the wars and famines that are raging all over the world today. What does this say to you about how much Americans really "care" about anything? While I agree with much of what you have said in many of your writings, I find that mainstream progressive thought is much more a case of people like you trying to sell the people a different-colored car than an alternative mode of transportation.

David Sirota: In advertising, they say the goal is to manufacture desires before you ever sell a product. Make people desire something and then the sales pitch for the specific product is easier. The excitement and interest in the battle between milquetoast candidates is merely the product of that manufacture of desire by the media. The media focuses only on presidential politics, and within that, only on a narrow set of issues and candidates in that arena. That leads us to believe that that's where the real "battle" is -- when in fact, as my book shows, the battle is all around us in an infinite number of arenas.

I think it's hard to support your assertion that my writing is attempting to sell a different colored car, as you put it. I write about issues like globalization, trade and corporate power that very, very few authors/political journalists write about in any kind of power-challenging way.


Arlington, Va.: Mr. Sirota, I've listened to each of the three major presidential candidates (one of whom, by nature of the system, is guaranteed to be the next president) cheer the alleged "political awakening" of America's young people. Their emphasis is that these new "activists" either are donating money to Democrats and Republican or are active raising money from donors.

Thus, the main activity of the select few who have heard the call to activism is to collect yet more cash for an increasingly unresponsive, unrepresentative political system choked with special interest and PAC money. Personally, I find this news depressing. I don't feel a new wave of change and activism; I sense only a new generation a buying into a broken electoral system at a younger age than their parents, and nothing more. I'm hardly a radical, but I find the whole mess discouraging to say the least.

David Sirota: I can see your point of view -- and I sympathize with it to a certain extent. I worry that lots of people getting involved in the presidential campaign think the campaign itself is a political movement. But as history has shown, candidates, parties and elections are not movements -- they are vehicles for movements. Those who think any of these candidates or any of these elections are movements are deluded.

_______________________ You mention the power of state governments; how successful do you think a Republican strategy of playing defense in 2008 and conserving resources to fight tooth-and-nail -- especially on the state level -- in 2010 would be? Mid-term elections tend to favor the minority party as it is, and 2010's majorities would decide how to redraw district lines, post-census.

David Sirota: I think that's precisely what the GOP will do, but even beyond that electoral strategy, I think that will be their public policy strategy. If Republicans are shut out of Congress and the presidency, they will fire up their well-developed state-based infrastructure to take the conservative legislative fight to individual state legislatures in a more intense way than we've seen before.

_______________________ Do you think it's possible for Sen. Obama to win Montana and other just-out-of-reach Western states without moving so far to the center that it alienates the progressives what brung him to the dance?

David Sirota: I definitely think it is possible -- but it will require him to understand that the left-right stereotypes presented by the media is not the continuum of politics in the heartland. "Moving to the center" is defined by the Washington media as, for instance, supporting the Patriot Act. But the Patriot Act is hated in places like Montana and Colorado (see their state legislatures' near-unanimous passage of bipartisan legislation condemning the act).

If Obama is to win these kinds of states, he will have to move in a more populist direction on issues of civil liberties and economic issues -- if he follows the Democratic Leadership Council-ish faux "centrist" line of bowing down to corporate America and the national security state, he will lose these places decisively.


Evanston, Ill.: Hey David, what is your response to the argument that socialism is inefficient because of the absence of a dynamic price system -- i.e. the socialist calculation debate?

David Sirota: Forgive my ignorance, but I don't know the specific argument you are referring to. However, what I would say is this: the argument that government involvement in the marketplace is always inefficient is not supported by fact. Just one example: Medicare expends about 4 cents on the dollar for paperwork and administrative costs. The private health care market expends about 15 cents on the dollar for the same kind of thing. In short, in the health care market, we have evidence that the government can be far more efficient than the private system.

_______________________ What do you think of the criticism in today's Post review that your book, while well-written, pulls together disparate groups that don't constitute anything like a movement yet?

David Sirota: I was confused by the criticism -- because that's precisely the point I make at the beginning and end of the book. These are disparate groups. They are all motivated by a similar backlash sentiment against the establishment -- but its not yet clear whether they can forge a full-fledged movement around a common agenda. That's why I called the book "The Uprising" rather than "The Movement" -- an uprising is that middle-stage between total disengaged chaos and a full-fledged movement. Whether this uprising becomes a movement is not yet clear -- that's the very point of the book.


Silver Spring, Md.: You wrote: "I think it's hard to support your assertion that my writing is attempting to sell a different-colored car, as you put it. I write about issues like globalization, trade and corporate power that very, very few authors/political journalists write about in any kind of power-challenging way." You really ought to get out more -- I have found all of your writings entirely predictable. I'm not trying to be mean, that's just how it is.

David Sirota: One's "predictable" is another's "consistent." I make no apologies for advocating what I advocate, nor do I apologize for refusing to be inconsistent in order to satiate your desire for surprises.


David Sirota: Thank you all for being here and participating. I hope you pick up the book, and feel free to e-mail me your comments at ds@davidsirota. And most importantly, join the uprising!


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