You’d have to be on a media fast to have missed journalist/blogger/commentator David Sirota on TV (Stephen Colbert, CNN, Fox News[!]), radio (NPR, Pacifica) and in the pages of Newsweek and The New Republic earlier this summer. He was discussing his New York Times bestseller The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington. It’s his deft synthesis of America’s populist revolts against government, corporations, and the super-rich who claim to represent ordinary people while royally screwing them.
Inspiration From the Best
Sirota’s touchstone is organizer extraordinaire Saul Alinsky, whose Rules for Radicals and other books provide the blueprint for successful uprisings. He quotes his mentor to endorse moves that bring success, and to contrast them with those that do not. (E.g., “Start from where the world is, as it is, not as [you] would like it to be.”)
There’s not enough room here for a review that does justice to Sirota’s trenchant, witty style and his persuasive analysis of successful and failed citizen rebellions, past and present. But here’s a glimpse of what works and what doesn’t. (As we progressive activists are discovering, the anti-Iraq uprising is, sadly, in the latter category.)
Let’s Start with Success
First to Montana by way of Denver where, on the second night of the Democratic Convention, a slightly rotund balding folksy guy with a bolo tie repeatedly propels delegates to their feet with his irrepressible exhortations about- among other issues- oil and energy independence! That enthusiast — Brian Schweitzer — somehow gets himself elected Montana’s governor in this heretofore right-wing state.
Here Sirota illustrates Alinsky’s advice to understand the political reality facing you, and strategize within it. To defeat entrenched anti-tax GOP state legislators, Schweitzer proposes his own property tax rebate of $400 for every resident Montana homeowner, whether their house cost $175,000 or $1,000,000. But to keep the money circulating in-state, out-of-state landowners and big corporations will get no rebate.
Republicans first go into shock, then rush to appease their big money donors by arguing that every entity-person or company-owning Montana property deserves a rebate. For example, a mammoth energy company would get back $1.5 million; $1.2 million would go to an out-of-state railroad and ExxonMobil (based in Texas) would regain $300,000. Since the majority of these corporations are based outside the state, very little of this windfall would be spent in Montana.
Here’s the Plan
Democratic state reps say their constituents are unhappy that outsiders with Montana vacation mansions as well as corporations in New York and Fort Worth would collect a much sweeter tax break. Ordinary Montanans testify at the State Capitol with the same message. A newspaper reports that GOP lawmakers are getting challenged about “why out-of-state trophy-home owners should share in Montana’s largesse.”
Sirota writes that this plan is coordinated to ignite in Montana residents a belief called “subjugation psychology.” This belief, “crucial to most populist uprisings,” results when people feel oppressed by and resentful of outsiders for physically and culturally occupying their community. Another important element in this successful uprising is Governor Schweitzer’s talent for stealing “the populist mantle from conservatives and positioning himself as the leader of a new uprising.”
When the legislative session ends in mid-2007, Schweitzer’s tax plan and almost the entire Dem agenda passes. The uprising succeeds in fragmenting the once resolute GOP anti-tax movement. A recent poll found that 64% of Montanans approve how Schweitzer runs the state.
Then it’s on to D.C., where Sirota refers again to the Alinskyism about working toward success using the reality in front of you. Early in 2007, just after Democrats ride anti-war fervor to gain control of Congress, President Bush announces plans to escalate the Iraq war.
About two-thirds of Americans oppose this war for a variety of populist reasons: our soldiers are dying to protect Iraq’s oil so we can then take it; most casualties are poor kids whose only source of income is the military; and, while our money feeds the war our economy shrivels and our debt swells. And the Dem majority has the constitutional power to stop the “surge.”
Pressuring their representatives to do that is the stated goal of about 100,000 activists marching outside Congress on the National Mall. Many are former Dems, who have all but stopped working inside the system for change, because their efforts keep failing.
Sirota bluntly critiques this failure. First, he quotes a few signs from the demonstration (familiar to L.A. progressives from our own marches): Code Pink, 9/11 Truth, ANSWER Coalition, Neighbors for Peace and Justice, Impeach Now.
He writes, “there’s no effort to even hone a basic message. This is supposed to be a rally against the war in Iraq, but as I look out at the sea of signs” it could be a rally to stop a maybe-future Iran war, to impeach Bush, arrest Cheney, end the death penalty, overthrow the US government, or give more funds to rebuild a post-Katrina New Orleans.
He uses activist Matt Stoller’s term for this group– “The Protest Industry.” At the front of the crowd on the Mall he sees Cindy Sheehan, Sean Penn and Jane Fonda. There are Naderites and followers of Lyndon LaRouche.
This group may share anti-war beliefs with the rest of the country, but, Sirota writes, “it doesn’t look, dress, or even talk like the two-thirds of Americans who oppose the war.” For a body needing to multiply its membership and pressure a D.C. political culture that makes decisions based on TV, this is a problem.
TV Changed Everything
Once television began dominating our political narrative, mass marches lost their intrinsic media value. Sirota writes, “the system, in short, now rewards visual spectacles over numbers”
He cites Alinsky’s message about dealing with reality. This means accepting “that the reporters, politicians, pundits and operatives who-comprise Washington’s Establishment” want to write off the uprising by portraying the antiwar movement as “fringe.”
Why the Other Side’s Uprising Works
Republicans have their own Protest Industry. Built by grassroots organizers like right-to-lifer/Barry Goldwater supporter Phyllis Schlafly, by publications like the National Reviewand Richard Viguerie’s newsletters, and by right-wing think tanks, these organizers instilled message discipline in their troops.
They also used techniques like encouraging far-right candidates to challenge moderate GOP incumbents, forcing the ultimately victorious incumbents to the right. Gradually, writes Sirota, the fight “eroded the standing of moderate —Republicans and eventually gave the radical Right full control of the GOP.”
As we know, despite that early 2007 march on the National Mall and other actions, Congressional Democrats did not use their power to stop the “surge.” They also wimped out on the opportunity to cut off funding that kept the occupation going.
Two Warring Tribes
There’s “a fissure between two warring tribes who differ over whether and how to challenge entrenched power,” Sirota continues. Opposite the Protest Industry, he presents the “Players.”
The Players are political consultants, donors, progressive electeds and a few non-profit leaders. They think working mainly inside the system is the best way to end the war. An exemplar of the Players is the group Americans against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI), a new coalition of DC-based advocacy groups.
DC Fetish Started the War
A bit about the incestuous nature of D.C. politicians and media. Sirota describes that city as being obsessed with itself. Its celebrities are political talk show hosts whose audiences total about one-tenth of one percent of American viewers. But the Players still care only about the impression they make on fellow Washington insiders.
This “self-absorbed fetishization” would be funny, he argues, “except that the Iraq War was largely started because of this obsession.” He details the p.r. “echo chamber in Washington” campaign that “made the historically unprecedented concept of ‘preemptive war’ seem utterly mainstream inside the Beltway.”
He quotes Wisconsin’s fearless, progressive Senator Russ Feingold saying the battle to end the war is “us versus them”– not Dems against the GOP, but the uprising versus “the Washington inside crowd that sets the parameters of this debate.”
The Webs They Weave
AAEI uses short-term tactics designed to make a Washington media splash. It concocts what lobbyists call “grasstops” (as opposed to grassroots) actions and events to create the illusion of an organized, homegrown anti-war movement that can pressure pro-war lawmakers. But they aren’t building the lasting grassroots infrastructure that has been critical to real movements.
AAEI hires a big-name political consultancy that brings it “instant credibility” with politicians and reporters. This consulting firm is run by two “longtime Democratic Party operatives” who, along with about half their staff used to work for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which works to elect Democrats.
It gets better. This consulting firm also represents Democratic politicians! So the anti-war Players are now attached to some of the Democratic lawmakers they’re supposed to be pressuring.
Most of AAEI’s budget goes for attack ads to beat pro-war GOP candidates, but not pro-war Democrats. Sirota contends that the real goal of AAEI and other Players is to increase Democrats’ congressional majority, whether the war ends or not.
Furthermore, Democratic consultants tell the Democratic leadership “if you propose a time-line or cut funding, the Republicans will tear you apart.”
The Dems have been operating under what Sirota calls “The McGovern Fable.” This fable claims it was George McGovern’s strong anti-war stance which lost him the 1968 presidential election against Richard Nixon, and is attributable for subsequent Democratic losses as well.
Sirota debunks this fable. (His skillful deconstruction is revealed in “The Uprising.”)
We Need Both
He asserts that both the Players and the Protest Industry are required for an effective antiwar uprising. The “outraged rabble provides the boots on the ground” to pressure lawmakers in local communities, and the populist uproar could be enhanced by the Players presence in the Beltway’s media game.
Yet other uprisings are scoring impressive successes: a New York third-party/Democratic fusion is forcing both major parties to move in a progressive direction and to keep their promises; Lou Dobbs is extolling Minutemen patrolling at the US-Mexico border; stockholder activists are shaming multinationals (ExxonMobil specifically); ex-Microsoft workers are unionizing anti-union techies; and three new US Senators are organizing populists throughout America.
by Wendy Block
Wendy Block represents the 42nd AD on the DSCC, is a board member and the Recording Secretary of Valley Democrats United, Recording Secretary of the 42nd AD Permanent Precinct Task Force, and a member of the Kitchen Cabinet of Kitchen Table Democracy. She speaks to area groups on behalf of the California Clean Money Campaign. She also volunteers for Barack Obama.
Republished with permission from the Valley Democratics United newsletter, Margie Murray, where it first appeared.
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