In the face of escalating gas and food prices, falling wages, rising unemployment, a housing crisis, a mismanaged and endless war, unbridled corporate greed, and Congressional deadlock, enraged citizens on the political left and right are channeling their dissatisfaction into grassroots movements for change.
Journalist and progressive activist David Sirota traveled the U.S. for a year to learn about these disparate efforts and chronicled his journey in his new book, The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington (Crown Publishers, 2008). Joe Trippi, political strategist for the presidential campaigns of John Edwards and Howard Dean, said of the book: "David Sirota details with clarity the sharp knife of corporate greed pointed at the throat of our democracy -- and the populist uprising that may thwart the threat if enough Americans heed his call. If you love your country, buy The Uprising, read it, and act."
Sirota writes that the seemingly simple idea that the people -- not dictators or elites -- can organize and decide their destiny "is far and away the most radical idea in human history." He sees the new populists as embracing the spirit of philosopher and organizer Saul Alinsky, who believed that "if the people have the power to act, in the long run, they will, most of the time, reach the right decision."
In The Uprising, Sirota describes efforts by progressives and conservatives to challenge the status quo and reclaim America. Among the many diffuse movements he discusses are shareholder activism at Exxon led by a Dominican nun; the successful grassroots campaigns of Democrats Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Jon Tester in conservative Montana; New York's powerful third party, the Working Families Party; Ned Lamont's 2006 campaign for Joe Lieberman's U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut; Lou Dobbs on trade policy and immigration; the right-wing Minutemen and Militia movements; and even the union organizing of high-tech temporary workers in the Seattle area.
Sirota has worked as a political organizer in state and national politics all over America. He served as the press secretary for Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and as a senior strategist helping Brian Schweitzer become Montana's first Democratic governor in 16 years. His first book, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government--and How We Take It Back, was a New York Times bestseller. His column runs weekly in the Denver Post, San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Times, and other newspapers. He is a senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future and the founder of the Progressive States Network -- both nonpartisan research institutions.
Sirota recently talked about The Uprising from the road while traveling on a national book tour.
What inspired you to write about diverse populist movements?
In working in politics, I sensed the changing dynamic and the intensification of anger politics over the last five or six years. After the 2006 election--actually before that election--you could sense that upsurge, and I wanted to report on it and see if there was a book there, if there was something cohesive to write about. When I went out and started reporting I found that these disparate strands are connected in the impulse that motivates them.
It seems that the populist movements you describe are not being covered in any depth by the mainstream media.
I agree. That's the product of a media that is election-focused and election-driven, and is not interested in covering social movements. Social movements are not about celebrities and they're often challenging economic interests that many major media organizations have a vested interest in. There's a lot of reasons why the media does not cover some of the trends and phenomena in the book.
And the movement is probably too difficult to capture in a soundbite.
That's absolutely true. The dominance of television news and the corresponding desire to boil everything down into soundbites is definitely at work.
Could you talk about the uprising you see today?
The uprising I describe is [in] the middle state between disengagement and a full-fledged social movement. It's an opportunity for people who are angry to the point of considering getting more seriously involved in the political process, the electoral process, and it's a product of the fact that people can now see a direct line between government policy and the current crises we're facing, whether it's the oil crisis or the Middle East crisis or the general recession. People can see that those crises have a lot to do with government policy.
Since I finished writing the book, the trends have only become more pronounced, and the trends are bleeding into the national election. I think that's a good thing: that the election is beginning to reflect these issues. But it's not clear whether the beneficiary of this uprising will be the right or the left.
You have a background as an organizer with a history of working for populist leaders such as Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Connecticut Senate candidate Ned Lamont. What first sparked your interest in populist politics?
I think starting out working for Bernie Sanders, and looking at politics through the lens of economic class, seeing how government most severely impacts [that] specific set of issues, brought me to that populist perspective.
Some see Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy as part of a populist movement, but you've said that an individual doesn't reflect a movement.
Obama has benefited from this populist upsurge, and people have gotten more politicized. That has increased participation in the process, and Obama has capitalized on it. People are not right to assume that supporting his candidacy or the candidacy of anybody else is a way to engage in a social movement. Politicians are one potential vehicle for change, but they are not change [and] they are not movements unto themselves.
You've mentioned that forces such as fear, anger, and "psychological subjugation" have prompted these movements.
Populism [stems from] the politics of backlash, the politics of blame, and subjugation psychology -- much of this is legitimate. People have reasons to be angry. There are individual politicians and organizations to be blamed for the situation we're facing. I don't think this upsurge in populism is necessarily a bad thing. It can be put into good or bad objectives, and my book tries to answer the question [of] which they will be.
In discussing the antiwar movement, you write that the Democratic Party hasn't been responsive. What particular groups been more effective in the antiwar movement?
The antiwar uprising has been one of the least effective corners of the overall uprising. There have been good individual examples of people pushing the envelope on the war. US Action has done really good grassroots work. Individual campaigns such as the Ned Lamont campaign helped change the debate on the war. But the antiwar movement has a way to go.
Antiwar voters seemingly forced a change in Congress, but Congress hasn't responded.
What we learned is that changing Congress on that issue will take more than one election. It will take constant pressure.
What sort of pressure can the antiwar movement employ?
I'd advise a truly bipartisan strategy that is willing to pressure, criticize and organize against pro-war politicians of both parties, not just politicians of the Republican Party.
And don't you criticize MoveOn for attacking only Republicans?
Yes -- not to single them out. The antiwar [movement] in Washington, D.C. has been a campaign to use the war to attack Republicans rather than a campaign to end the war. Using the war to attack Republicans is a separate objective from ending the war.
You suggest that Washington and Wall Street are running scared because of these populist uprisings, but I'm not getting that sense.
I don't know if they're running scared, but they are getting more scared that there is going to be a backlash. You see it in the citizens' press. A couple weeks ago, the Chamber of Commerce said it's very, very nervous that there's going to be an upsurge in union membership. You see the business community and right-wing politicians are very upset that they haven't been able to move through the pending NAFTA expansion bill. And you see more strategists in Washington trying to caution against their colleagues taking a populist line. So you see the real outlines of fear inside the palace walls.
You deal with populists on the left and the right. You mention the Minutemen and Lou Dobbs' bifurcation of immigration and trade policy.
Yes. There is a right edge of this uprising, and if progressives don't harness this uprising in their direction, this uprising won't go away. It will get more angry, more intense, and it will go in a very counterproductive direction.
What needs to happen for the uprising to go in a progressive direction?
Progressives need to organize around issues and not parties. Rank and file activists need to devote more of their attention to smaller arenas of government. Devoting all of our attention to the presidential election leaves a huge amount of power that goes unused by our side. Of course conservative and corporate forces [sway] state legislatures and city councils when we don't. It requires a strategic shift and a shift in focus away from party only and to issues.
And progressives must shift away from national to local politics?
I don't want to say national politics isn't important. It certainly is important, but there's no balance right now. It seems most of our focus is on national politics and almost none of our focus is on state and local politics. I'm not romanticizing by saying state and local politics is important; it's important because there's a huge amount of power at the state and local level. State governments, as one example, control as much non-defense discretionary spending as the entire federal government.
What are the historical parallels to the populist movement you see now?
There have been three uprising moments in the past century. One was when the Great Depression started, around 1932. One in 1964, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, the beginnings of the anti-Vietnam War uprising. And one in 1980, which the conservatives capitalized on. I definitely think there are serious similarities, and those similarities indicate that an uprising moment like this can bring about exponential change.