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|July 10-16, 2008
The uprising will not be televised
David Sirota is leading a populist revolution — why haven’t you heard about it?
by Dylan Otto Krider
Populist” is perhaps the most coveted label in our political discourse. Multi-millionaires like Bill O’Reilly claim the mantle, and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd boasts of being one of “you” because her dad owns a gun. It’s to the point where just about any corporate PR campaign that needs a boost tries to fund a little Astroturf organization in order to put a grassroots sheen on their pro-industry policies, without watering.
When David Sirota calls himself a populist, however, he means it in a people-before-power kind of way. As in unions, and not NAFTA. As in, shifting power from CEOs to pipe fitters. So how the hell did he get a nationally syndicated column?
“I ask myself that every day,” says Sirota. “And I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t say I’m economically struggling, but I’ve had to scratch and claw to get anything I’ve wanted.”
Railing against corporate power and money is not exactly the way to get those lucrative speaking fees in front of corporate organizations.
Sure, you might find the occasional criticism of Bush’s war in the Op-Ed pages, but if you want an alternative economics viewpoint to George F. Will and his various incarnations, the pickings are pretty slim. “Even among [“liberal” columnists], Paul Krugman is a free trader,” Sirota says. “If you judged the political debate on economics, Paul Krugman is on the far left, and you have George Will as the center, and then Milton Friedman on the right. That’s pretty skewed parameters.”
Even Krugman seems to have been selected as an economist to second Tom Friedman’s “World is Flat” free-trade philosophy and only became the accidental voice of dissent when he didn’t hide the fact he thought Bush was dishonest in his economic data.
Sirota’s bio appears to suggest his column was only picked up to replace Molly Ivins because, lord knows, you can’t have two of them lurking about in media universe.
Outside of DC and the MSM, the token progressive insists there is a genuine movement afoot in the left and the right, which Sirota catalogues in The Uprising: An Authorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington.
Sirota points to Gallup’s biannual survey of attitudes toward social institutions to show how Americans’ disgust with government resembles the last uprising in the wake of Watergate, except that the disgust now extends to other institutions, like corporate America. In 1979, one in three Americans had confidence in big business, whereas today a little less than one in five express the same confidence. In 1979, two out of three had faith in banks, but only two out of five express the same trust today.”
You can see this dissatisfaction manifesting in the citizen militias of the right, and the rise of progressive politicians like Governor Brian Schweitzer when Rocky Mountain Republicans were at their zenith. Having worked on a number of campaigns and as an intern for Congress’s only official independent, Bernie Sanders, Sirota gets access to political rogues like the farmer with the flat-top, Jon Tester, who managed to win a senate seat in Montana by opposing the Patriot Act and criticizing the handling of Iraq.
In Colorado, where Sirota now resides, you have a unique population where left and right meet. Hunters and hippies tend to naturally be distrustful of government in ways that made pro-impeachment icon Bob Barr join forces with the ACLU to oppose expansions of government power. A love of open spaces can lead one to join Earth First! or the NRA.
So why haven’t we heard about this? Because the uprising will not be televised. “It hasn’t been,” Sirota admits. Except when he manages to sneak a gig onto Lou Dobbs or the faux news shows on Comedy Central.
“We expect change to come very quickly, even the exponential events of history. The New Deal and Civil Rights passed in two or three years, but it was the result of a lot of work over decades,” Sirota says. The uprisings “laid the groundwork that the media didn’t notice and didn’t get a lot of glorification.”
Could we have a populist president? Obama’s reliance on small donations gives him more freedom than any candidate, ever, to operate separately from moneyed interests, but it’s unclear to Sirota whether he’ll take advantage of it. “It’s an opportunity. Will it turn into cohesive pressure?”
Early indications aren’t good. The first thing Obama did since cinching the nomination was to embrace the policies the establishment loves — NAFTA and immunity for Telecoms in FISA — policies that many of his e-contributors most likely disdain. “While the opportunity is there, he hasn’t yet seized that opportunity.”
There is still hope, however. The Online Community Obama exploited with his bottom-up campaign is now getting used by those same fickle MySpace groupies to twist his arm over FISA the same way lobbyists do in back rooms, only out in the open. As for whether the masses can exert the same pressure as one high-priced lobbyist, we’ll have to wait and see.
On the Bill:
David Sirota will discuss The Uprising: An Authorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 15, at the Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-2074.
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