I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Transcript of interview with David Sirota

Salon Radio with Glenn Greenwald - Interview with David Sirota

GG: Welcome to Salon Radio with Glenn Greenwald.

My guest today is the author and columnist David Sirota, whose latest book is "Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington." Thanks for joining me today, David.

DS: Thanks for having me, Glenn.

GG: My pleasure. So I wanted to begin by asking you about the central argument, not just in your book, but in a lot of your political writings which I think is a controversial topic though a thought-provoking one. And as I understand it it's this: that there is not just discontent in the United States, but such severe discontent, such pervasive discontent with the government, with our corporate structure, with the ruling elite, that you actually think that we're on a path to, as you call it in your book, in the title, an uprising on the part of the citizenry. Is that a fairly accurate summary of how you see things, and if so can you elaborate on that a little?

DS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think it is an accurate way to put it. I think we are actually in the midst of an uprising. In the beginning of the book I say that an uprising is the state of the country when, between the typical disengaged chaos that marks a lot of history, and then those moments of full-fledge social movements that really bring about exponential change. And in between those times are uprisings, this sort of primordial soup of activism and anger and ferment. And I think we're in that uprising, and we're seeing those uprisings on the both the right and left.

GG: Now one of the principle pieces of evidence that you cite for, in support of your belief that there's an uprising is public opinion data which does fairly impressively demonstrate that there is widespread dissatisfaction among the citizenry. More than 8 out of 10 Americans believe that the country is fundamentally on the wrong course - historically high numbers in that regard. Most of our political and other elite institutions are held in the lowest esteem they've ever been held in, and that data is fairly indisputable I think.

At the same time I think a lot of people would object, and I might even be one of them, that there really isn't very much evidence that that abstract dissatisfaction, that that anger that is apparent if you go and find people and ask them how they feel about the government and our other institutions, that really isn't translating into any discrete or concrete action, whether that's because people have been convinced of their own impotence or the futility of that kind of behavior. I mean, beyond just this sentiment out there, what do you actually see if anything that suggests people actually believe that that anger can be translated into something meaningful?

DS: Well, I think that first and foremost, you see people at record numbers with record intensity, I think, getting involved just in the upcoming election, so I think that's one example of it. I think you see more and more people engaging online either in politics or just in expressing themselves politically. I mean, I think you've got an increase in the amount of people simply getting their news from different places, looking away from the traditional media, understanding traditional media is part of the problem.

And then I think you see a lot of the examples that are in my book, people taking matters into their own hands. I mean, I think you see a potentially renewed and reinvigorated labor movement. This year was the first year that labor added a significant amount of members since 1983. You see a third party become a very, very powerful force, the Working Families Party, in one of the biggest states in the country, New York. You see more and more share-holder resolutions being put forward to try to change company behavior. And on the right you saw, and it may be a little dissipated now, but I think you saw a pretty serious uprising and indeed a public uprising when it came to the issue of immigration. An uprising of such intensity that it managed to stop, I think, the immigration reform bill.

So I agree with you that not everybody in the country is angry and taking action; I think most people are angry in some way shape or form at the government. But not everybody's taking action but the old rule of rule of thumb in organizing – Solinsky's rule – is you only really need 5% of any given public in any given region or area or congressional district to really make a huge amount of change. I think we're at that 5% threshold.

GG: Let's put it a little bit into historical context. I mean one of the things I think is most impressive about the history of the United States is that truly fundamentally change has occurred in, almost continuously, in all sorts of unparalleled ways. You know you look at the emancipation of slavery, and the full integration of African-Americans into all of our civic institutions, the granting of the right to vote to women, the change in, fairly radical and rapid, in how gays and lesbians are perceived in the country. So a whole slew of very fundamental changes, social changes that have occurred in the United States.

And yet I think when you look at most of those changes that have occurred that aren't just incremental and on the margins but are truly central to how our country conceives of itself and how it functions, there's really, the hallmark of all of that change is a lot of upheaval, is turmoil in our political process. I mean a civil war was fought to free the slaves. You know, all kinds of people had to march in the streets in order for civil rights for African-Americans even to be possible. During Vietnam War there were massive protests and violent demonstrations outside of conventions and all sorts of social upheaval that I think largely if you look now is missing. Is that kind of upheaval necessary for fundamental change? I mean is it enough for people to simply organize in kind of passive and peaceful ways, or is a more tumultuous blow to the system necessary in order to result some fundamental change?

DS: Well, it's a very good question and I don't think we know the answer to it. What I can say is I think that your historical premise is right that a lot of change has come as a result of a lot of tumult and the question is whether our country expresses that tumult differently today than it did in the past or whether we're not at the precipice.

I think – my gut tells me that our country expresses its anger in the political arena differently than perhaps it did in other eras. We have new tools, again, like the Internet is the best example of one, new tools for people to express themselves politically that we didn't have 15, 20 years ago in any well-formed way. And I think that that has certainly changed the political culture of protest and activism. But I don't think it necessarily has dampened it. I don't think it has weakened it. I mean, I think you see big protests every now and again, a number huge protests against the war, a number huge protests for immigrant rights – what I can say is that we also need to remember that when change comes in this country it actually comes in exponential fashion.

The New Deal was passed, most of the New Deal was passed in two and a half to three years. A lot of the Great Society passed, again, in 4 to 5 years. So I think that with the economic crises facing the average person today – the housing, the credit crisis the corporate melt-down, the on-going off-shoring of jobs, the overall war on the middle class - with that intensifying I think people are becoming politicized around issues that weren't seen as political before. I mean housing policy and banking policy was never really seen as a super-political issue and now I think people are realizing in their day-to-day lives that they are political issues and some of them, again not all, but some of them are saying, I'm angry and I just can't just afford to watch TV and mutter about it, I've got to do something.

GG: Right, well, with regard to that idea, well, let's do something, I think one of the things that surprised a lot of people, even politically engaged people, high information political observers, was the 2006 election, because that was an example where it was a pretty extraordinary shift in the populace in terms of how people thought politically. People who had never voted Democratic in the past voted Democratic. There was a real watershed election in terms of just the results of no Democratic incumbent being defeated, both Houses of Congress shifting from the Republicans to the Democrats, multiple state legislatures doing the same, it's really a historically unusual election in terms of how lopsided it was and clearly so much of what motivated that was anger and dissatisfaction over the Iraq War and a desire to punish Republicans for that war and to give control to Democrats in order to end that war.

And yet as we all know, nothing of that sort happened. I mean that political sentiment didn't translate into any action. It's almost like the political class got into power after the 2006 election and just completely ignored what the citizenry had so clearly expressed. What is it that accounts for that complete disconnect between the citizenry and the political class, and are people likely to reach the conclusion that well no matter angry I get, no matter how involved in the process I become, no matter successful I am in changing who has their hands on the levers of power, nothing really changes and so this sort of defeatism gets spread.

DS: Right, and I worry about that. What I would say is that the way to explain what happened is that we have to first and foremost remember our government is, does first and foremost one thing: it makes war. We – our federal government has used war as its major tool of foreign policy engagement for most of our country's history. So stopping a war is a very difficult thing.

Now I completely agree that the Democrats in Congress, after campaigning on a promise to end the war, it is really just unbelievable, that, at one level, that they continue to cut blank checks for the most unpopular war to the most unpopular president in history. I mean it's just, it's really, at one level, it's incredible.

At another level it's predictable, in that we have to understand that it takes a long time to build the kind of social movement needed to stop a government from doing what its number one priority has been for the last century or so. And I think that this speaks to the idea that we're facing I think a collision of an effort to build a number of movements and America's new, I think, instant gratification culture, brought up in this twenty-four hour news cycle. You know, we have sort of indoctrinated to believe that change happens overnight and if it doesn't happen overnight that it'll never happen. But you know, the civil rights movement is just one example – the civil rights movement didn't happened in 1964. The civil rights movement was the product of decades and decades and decades of building an activism against a government who, that had basically been a proponent of Jim Crow laws for most of its history.

So these things take a long time and so what I would say is I agree with you, I worried about demoralization among people who feel like the war should be over – and I think it should be over – but feel like the war should be over and if it's not over right now it means it can never be over. We have to think of a longer view, a historical view. Not to say we should be patient – we should be impatient and we sound continue to push – but we shouldn't disengage and throw up our hands and say it's not worth it when we know that the movements to stop wars like this take a long time.

GG: Right. Now, one of the things you write about a lot is the way in which both parties are, and the political process generally as a result, are so dominated by corporations. I mean you can look at you know essentially any issue, even ones that aren't immediately, where the relationship to corporate interest isn't immediate apparent, and what you find at the center of them is essentially that exact problem where, you know, law-makers literally in Congress turn over the process of writing laws to the corporations and lobbyists, and citizens really haven't found a way to break through that process except in isolated cases.

One of the things that I find so interesting and a little mysterious about that process is, what is it that accounts the ability of these corporate interests and their lobbyists to maintain such on a stranglehold on our political processes? I mean if you look at things like contributions to congressional candidates and the like, it's certainly true that corporations and lobbyists donate a fairly substantial amount of money to various candidates and incumbents, but because of campaign finance laws and the like, it's fairly limited in terms of its scope. It isn't explainable only by their ability to contribute to candidates and therefore candidates are incentivized to carry out their agenda. Can you talk about you think are some of the systemic causes of how our political system, both Democrat and Republican, has, have been so annexed by corporations and their lobbyists and this sort of anti-middle-class, anti-populist agenda?

DS: Well, it think it has to do with money but I think you're right, contributions are not the only examples. Contributions are only one representative example. But money is really a much bigger thing than a campaign check. I mean, today you've got 527's and political action committees that basically threaten to run huge amounts of ads, third-party ads, against members of Congress who don't do what they want, and huge amounts of ads for the Congress people who do do what those interests want. So I think that's another piece of it. And then of course there's the whole issue of party. How much money can flow into state and national parties based on how a party uses its power on different issues.

So I think, I think it's the campaign finance structure as a whole. And then I also think that it is, what you write about so much, which is the creation of the echo chamber, which basically sets the parameters of debate around major issues. You have a traditional media that is largely corporate-owned and so when it purports to be objective, that's absurd. I mean a corporate-owned media has an ideology when it comes to issues regulating corporations. And so that corporate media, through all sort of ways, conscious and subconscious, sets the parameters of debate around major economic and foreign policy issues to make sure that the parameters are narrowed, so that any of the possible outcomes are those which do not challenge corporate power and big money. And you know it's through everything from the manipulation of where the actual center of American public opinion is.

You know the media tells us the center is one place even though we know through public opinion data says that the center of public opinion is far away from that place. Everything from that manipulation to berating anybody who has a progressive, power-challenging position of economic issues. The issue of trade for instance. You know, you talk about the issue of trade and if you don't want NAFTA, if you want to reform NAFTA to protect ordinary workers in both, in America and abroad you're labeled a protectionist or worse you're labeled anti-trade, when in fact we know the debate is about are you for one kind of trade or are you for another kind of trade. It's all of these ways: so it's campaign finance system and the propaganda system that is owned by those who have an interest in preserving the status quo.

GG: And you know one of the things that I find interesting is, there was an article from the Wall Street Journal from I think two or three days ago actually, that found what has been true over the last, really, eight years is that the income inequality the income gap in the United States has been growing and continues to grow and this latest report from the IRS found that the top 1% of income earners in the United States now earned more than 22% of the gross adjusted income in the United States, which is the highest since the IRS began compiling those statistics in the mid 1970's and according to a lot of economists probably the highest since 1929.

You know, I wonder if there is some sense among the corporate class and sort of the economic elite in the United States – there's almost some limit that they want to impose on themselves in terms of pursuing policies that widen this gap, out of fear that when the gap gets too wide, and economic distress becomes too acute, it can actually fuel the kind of uprising that you're describing into something much more threatening. Do you think that the corporate class and the elite think that way that strategically, that long term, or is it just kind of self-interest and greed that spawns them to keep pursuing policies that breeds this inequality without regard to the consequences?

DS: Well I think they have deluded themselves into believing that - believing the rising tide lifts all boats nonsense. And another iteration of that is, what's good for big business is good for America. You hear in these debates, you know, we have to grow the whole pie, we shouldn't focus on how to divide up the pie. That is the logic of, that justifies, or the illogic I should say, that justifies the policy, all the different policies that exacerbate this inequality. And I think that the folks at the top, the folks who are winning in this situation have created this defense mechanism to tell themselves, no, no, we really know that if we continue growing the pie instead of talking about how to divide it up, that's the way we'll lift everybody up. It's of course, it's nonsense, and we know it's nonsense now because we're now at this age and historical moment where worker productivity keeps rising, corporate profits have been rising, and wages have stayed stagnant.

I mean that's, in the past, because the economy, the rules of the economy were different, the laws were different, to protect workers and to protect all sorts of other economic interests, and because there was higher union membership, when worker productivity rose, and workers were making more things in a more efficient way, and when corporate profits were rising corporations were doing well, the workers would get some share of the benefit, that wages would rise. Now again we're at this moment where that's not the case. The productivity rises, profits rise, but workers' wages stagnate or go down. That means that the rising tide does not lift all boats and so what I think we have to do and I think what this uprising is really all about is the realization that the rising tide lifts all boat nonsense of the ruling class is nonsense and people are saying, you know what I've had enough of this, this doesn't work, this is actually hurting the country, and I think that realization – who can harness that realization into a political program will be the winners of the uprising.

You see the right trying to harness it by making it into scapegoating immigrants. I think it's awful but they have a very clear, that side of the uprising has a very clear message to try to scapegoat and use this moment. And I think progressives are more and more are saying, we can use this moment to define the us-versus-them not as foreigner versus native, ethnicity versus ethnicity but the have-not's versus the have's.

GG: You know one of the most valuable insights that I think you offer in the book is this challenge to the conventional wisdom that people on the left and people on the right, not political leaders, but people outside of the Beltway, are really diametrically opposed and you illustrate some of the important similarities in their sentiments. I mean I noticed that when I first started blogging, for example, that a lot of the rhetoric and a lot of the tone from the right-wing bloggers and the left-wing bloggers, despite their being, you know, vastly apart on very discrete and specific issue, the underlying sentiment was very much the same.

That we have this establishment media that spouts 'conventional wisdom', irrespective of what the truth is. That political leaders inside the Beltway are out of touch with the common American and are serving the establishment's interest and not the interests of citizens. This sort of populist anger that you're describing is very much not just present on the left and right but it really has a lot of common roots even though it manifests in different ways. But obviously there's been ways the establishment has kind of kept that from coalescing. I mean, there's these wedge issues that keep citizens that have common interests apart from one another. Do you see any prospect for those wedge issues to start losing their efficacy and, I mean, is there, are there signs that there's political developments that suggest these common interests can be represented in some way inside Washington, inside our political class?

DS: I think absolutely. I mean I think that as the economic and national security questions get more and more tense, and more and more real for regular people, that there's the possibility of forging coalitions around, right-left coalitions, around common issues, common agendas.

I mean I think that you know when I worked in the US House for instance with Bernie Sanders, the self described socialist, one of our best allies in that institution was Ron Paul the libertarian, around issues like trying to cut corporate welfare around issues like civil liberties. So I think there is the possibility for those coalitions inside the Congress and I think there's possibilities for coalitions among organizations and activists outside of the government to put pressure on the government. You saw that with the FISA fight, the fight over warrantless wiretaps. I think you may see it in many different ways as it relates to corporate power in general, issues of corporate power.

I mean I'll just tell you an example from my book. The guys at the border, the Minutemen, I mean they will tell you, they will say to you, I think our government is bought off and wants the status quo on immigration. And I think, while I disagree completely with their prescription, I think they're absolutely right. The government, in cahoots with big business, wants Americans and foreign workers in a wage-cutting competition to the bottom, and the people and the interests that perpetuate that status quo, rather than looking for any kind of solution, a humane solution, one that's fair, instead of looking they want that status quo. And it's the same kind of rhetoric you hear for instance from the union organizers in Seattle who are trying to organize Microsoft workers. Progressive unionist guys, they'll say, I think the government is bought off and is helping drive down the wages and benefits and job security of workers in the high-tech industry. So we see that the impulse across the spectrum is very, very similar. Now the prescriptions are different. That's the challenge. Can we find prescriptions to organize around that both the right and the left can organize around? I think on some issues we have examples where they can and on other issues it's going to take some work.

GG: One of the primary motivations or the sources of energy behind the Obama campaign of course is premised in this recognition that there's extreme dissatisfaction, not just on the left and not just among Democrats, but across the political spectrum with unaffiliated voters, independents, people who have never been involved in the political process before – this extreme dissatisfaction with the political culture generally, and obviously there's an attempt to, and it has been a fairly successful attempt on the part of the Obama campaign, tap into that with the whole change messaging and the idea that there's this outsider to the system who's going to come in and fundamentally re-work it. And clearly that has been a major part of what explains the success of the Obama campaign to defeat, you know, one of the most impressive political machines in the Clintons, and now to challenge the whole Republican structure. What is your view of the Obama campaign in terms of how authentic that message is? Or is it really just kind of an exploitation for political messaging purposes of some discontent that an Obama administration really wouldn't do very much about.

DS: Well, I think that the Obama campaign reflects the recognition that there is an uprising going on and that Obama has done a good job of positioning himself as a part of that uprising and in some ways a leader of the uprising. That where he's trying to position himself. What I would say is that how much he represents the uprising if and when he becomes president, will be a reflection of how much the uprising pressures him, and forces him to enact and champion real change. You know in the primaries, that controversial statement where Hillary Clinton said that Martin Luther King needed a president to pass civil rights legislation. You know I think that fundamentally misunderstood how power and politics works. You know, Lyndon Johnson did not wake up one morning after a career of opposing civil rights legislation and say, you know I'm going to be a nice guy, I've decided I'm going to be for civil rights now. This is not how it works in this country.

The way change happens is not through the messianic view of presidents, the paternalistic view of presidents, where they supposedly hand down change from Mount Olympus. What happens is is that uprisings and social movements change the political topography underneath politicians, make a politician, a consummate political calculator like Lyndon Johnson, wake up one morning and say, you know what, it's more politically safe for me to be for civil rights legislation than for me to be against it now. That effort, that work to change the political topography underneath the politicians has to continue, has to happen, and intensify, whoever is president. And if Obama does enact change, does champion real change in office, it will be because we have done that work and we have put that pressure on him. If we don't, I don't think there will bereal, substantive policy changes on a whole host of issues.

GG: Yeah, you know I think it's interesting, I've seen a lot of that debate recently of course with both the dissatisfaction that was expressed over Obama's reversal on the FISA bill and warrantless eavesdropping and retroactive immunity. This sort of sense that, well, there's really a danger in criticizing Obama too excessively or too vigorously, because to do that is to jeopardize his political prospects, sort of undermine his chances for success. Of the course the reality is that Obama as a politician like any other politician, responds to pressure points, and responds to the prospect of being rewarded and for being punished.

And so if you cede to the establishment, to the Fred Hyatts of the world and editorial boards across the country and TV stars, if you cede to them the prerogative to put pressure on politicians by saying if you stray too far from the establishment agenda, then if you become too populist or too radical, then we're going to demonize you and we're going to undermine your political prospects, then politicians are only going to respond to that. They're going to embraced the establishment agenda. The only real way to get them out of that form of thinking is to create an alternative pressure point that comes from populist movements or from organizing or from Internet complaints or from citizen anger, that says if you stray too far from our agenda, that's where the real punishment will lie and ultimately politicians need to realize that the price that they pay from betraying citizens is greater than the price that they pay from betraying the agenda of the ruling class. I mean is that is that fair way of looking at it, and do you think that...?

DS: Absolutely. I think it is a fair way of looking at it, and what I would say that we have to ask ourselves two things. One, what is an election really for? Is it for itself or is it an instrument of change? That what it's supposed to be for. Elections are supposed to be the instrument by which we make change and one of the ways to use the election as an instrument is to know as an election approaches, a politician gets more and more worried and more and more considering of popular public will, because the election is the moment of accountability.

And so if we as progressives don't use elections as a tool to pressure politicians, we are abdicating a huge amount of responsibility. I mean, we should see elections as the opportunity for us to most be able to pressure a politician to take positions and to take stands. As the election get closer the politician is going to become more and more nervous and that is an opportunity for a movement. Now to the argument that well, if you seize that opportunity too aggressively, using election too much as an instrument of just pressure, and you don't see that there is a need to win the election, then you will help lose the election. Well, you see, I even disagree with that premise. We saw this in the 2006 election. At the beginning of 2006, it's in my book, you can chart it chronologically, the Democratic Party was saying, we're not talking about the war at all. Nancy Pelosi is in the paper, we're not talking about the war, and there was a massive wave of pressure through protests, through Internet pressure, through campaign and primary campaign of Ned Lamont, to force that issue into the political debate and ultimately the Democratic Party was forced to take a much stronger position against the war. Its candidates were taking much stronger positions on the war because they were pressured to take those positions and that was the single most important reason that they won the 2006 election. So in other words the pressure on the party, on the politicians to take stronger stands, was decisive in winning the election, not losing the election. What would have lost the election is if there was no pressure, if there was no pressure because the establishment said if you put too much pressure on you'll lose the election. If we listened to that, we wouldn't have won the 2006 election.

GG: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. You know, there aren't many opportunities in American society to get people focused on and engaged with political issues. National elections are really the one time when the country focuses on those issues more than any other, and to squander that opportunity or to abdicate one's responsibility to use that process to effect the change that one thinks is necessary strikes me as really self-defeating and...

DS: It is and I would say if you believe you are pushing a majority issue, a majority policy, that the government and the politicians in question are not embracing, and if you can prove that – which with public opinion and actual data you can actually prove that on some issues – if you are pushing a majority position, if you are pushing politicians to take a majority position then your pressure only serves to help them win the election because they need a majority to win the election.

GG: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right and as you suggest earlier what is viewed as the majority or as the centrist position gets deliberately skewed by, you know, our political media and the by the political establishment. And so that kind of pressure can actually illuminate where the center really is for a candidate. I think you're absolutely right. Well, David I really appreciate your taking the time. I think your book is truly really interesting and raises all the right questions about what the real state of the country is and how that can be funneled into meaningful change, and I think it's provoked some really great debate and I hope it will continue to do so.

[Transcript courtesy of Peter Grey]