An Interview with David Sirota
by John Stauber/ CounterPunch / Weekend Edition – July 12 / 13, 2008
Sheldon Rampton and I could see it coming soon after the Democrats took control of the Congress in 2007. In March, 2007 we pointed out that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with the support of MoveOn, was advancing legislation that would fund the war in Iraq while giving Democrats PR cover, allowing them to posture against it while the bloody, brutal occupation of Iraq continues. We were attacked at the time by Democratic partisans, but unfortunately our analysis has proven correct and today the war in Iraq is as much of an interminable quagmire as it was when the Democrats took control of the House and Senate in January 2007.
Democratic political activist, columnist and author David Sirota has also strongly condemned this failure of the Democrats and “The Players,” DC’s professional partisan insiders such as MoveOn. On May 24, 2007 he wrote: “Today America watched a Democratic Party kick them square in the teeth – all in order to continue the most unpopular war in a generation at the request of the most unpopular president in a generation at a time polls show a larger percentage of the public thinks America is going in the wrong direction than ever recorded in polling history. … That will make May 24, 2007 a dark day generations to come will look back on – a day when Democrats in Washington not only continued a war they promised to end, but happily went on record declaring that they believe in their hearts that government’s role is to ignore the will of the American people.”
This month, more than a year later, the Democratic controlled Congress once again gave the Bush Administration funding to continue the Iraq war well into 2009. David Sirota now has a new book out: The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington. In it he expands on his criticism of the Democratic Party and its partisan, professional antiwar activists in the leadership of MoveOn.
Sirota writes in his new book (page 82), “The absence of a full-throated antiwar uprising is tragic at a time when the country appears more skeptical of knee-jerk militarism than ever before. … When this particular war does eventually end, both AAEI and MoveOn will undoubtedly claim that their narrow, ultra-partisan Beltway strategies were the key. They are, after all, experts at media promotion, and such a laughable yet easy-to-understand story line will be fairly simple to sell in the same era that has seen politicians and television pundits originally lie the country into the conflict. But what will be little discussed is the possibility that … their strategies prolonged the Iraq War at a time when Democrats had the constitutional power of the purse to stop it immediately.” Sirota concludes, “The Players may actually not mind the war continuing, because it preserves an effective political cudgel against Republicans. Actually ending the war, after all, means less fodder for the next television ad.”
I recently reached David Sirota via email in the middle of his grueling months-long book promotion tour. He was “exhausted and tired from the tour” and “hiding out” over the 4th of July weekend at the home of his in-laws in rural Indiana, but he responded quickly to my questions.
STAUBER: What inspired your commitment to populism? Have you read the classic book Populist Moment about the powerful 19th century movements that were eventually done in by the banks and Democratic Party co-optation? And if so, what lessons do you take from it for 21st century populist progressive movements?.
SIROTA: My commitment to populism was originally forged from working with people like Bernie Sanders and Dave Obey – two very different politicians who, on economic issues, are populist to the core. My career has been one centered around the concept of social justice – and that probably was forged even earlier than my politics. I grew up in a progressive family, among progressive friends, and with constant progressive influences in my life – from school to summer camp. In writing the book, I studied a lot of populist history, including The Populist Moment.
STAUBER: You are a mainstream Democratic partisan who is embracing populism and in your book you criticize MoveOn, Netroots mavens like Markos, and other Democratic leaders for their single-minded partisanship. What sort of response has your advocacy of movement building received in those Netroots quarters?
SIROTA: I would hardly say I am “a mainstream Democratic partisan” – ask any “mainstream Democratic partisan” who knows me if I’m one of them, and they’ll say the same. I guess I have been “a mainstream Democratic partisan” at a few past moments in my career – namely, when I was the spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee. But that was a two-year stint (and indeed a proud one) out of an entire career that has spanned working for Congress’s only independent, for Brian Schweitzer (hardly a typical Democrat) and as a progressive journalist. So far, the response to the book – and to the critiques in it – has been nothing but positive. As I say in the book, the Netroots is not a monolith – and I think people in that community have seen my writing as respectful and fair.
STAUBER: When the Democrats realized that the “gift” of the Iraq war — as Mario Cuomo has sarcastically called it — had given them control of the House and Senate in 2006, Pelosi and other leaders obviously decided to play it safe, not investigate this Administration for its many possibly impeachable offenses, and not force an end to the war by refusing to fund it. Apparently they hope that Iraq will play out politically in a similar fashion in the 2008 election and provide a Democratic victory. Do you agree with this analysis and whether or not you do, how do you view the failure of the Democrats and major collaborators like MoveOn to force an end to the war in Iraq after the 2006 elections that were such an anti-war vote?
SIROTA: Yes, I think Democrats are hoping that they can do nothing substantively to end the war, but get the sizeable antiwar vote in the general election nonetheless. The strategy is a predictable reflection of an unfortunate reality: namely, the reality that there in fact is no strong antiwar accountability system that is willing to use the election as an instrument of pressure. Instead, there are groups like Moveon.org that have built up an enormous capacity for pressure, but are using that enormous capacity as an appendage of the Democratic Party, regardless of whether Democrats use their congressional power to end the war.
STAUBER: MoveOn is not a movement although it wants to be perceived as one. It is a brilliant and effective fundraising and marketing machine, but 95% or more of their so-called members ignore any particular email appeal. These 3.2 million people on the MoveOn email list are the object of marketing and fundraising campaigns, but they have absolutely no meaningful or democratic control over the decisions of organization, there is no accountability from the leadership to the MoveOn list members, and those of us on the list are unable to organize and communicate amongst ourselves within the list because it can’t be accessed by the grassroots at the local or state level. MoveOn, the Democracy Alliance, and the various liberal think tanks that have arisen to fight the Right are clearly a force able to raise millions of dollars for Democratic candidates and launch PR and messaging campaigns, but none of them are about empowering a populist grassroots uprising. Or am I missing something?
SIROTA: I believe Moveon.org, the Democracy Alliance and the array of left-leaning institutions that have arisen in recent years possess a vast amount of potential for a progressive movement – but it is only potential at this point. That’s for many reasons – one of the biggest being the utter lack of small-d democracy. You cannot build a movement if you are unwilling to give up power to the rank-and-file.
STAUBER: Barring a military or terrorist attack that the Republicans could exploit, it seems certain that the Democrats will be able to win a solid majority in both the House and Congress this fall given the twin energy and economic crises, and the continuing war in Iraq. If Barack Obama loses the White House, do you see the Democratic Congress in 2009 any more likely to stand up to John McCain than it has to Bush on issues like this long, continuing war in Iraq?
STAUBER: I have read Obama’s autobiography and he is certainly an impressive person and thinker. However, his policies and political stands to date are rather mundane. If not for his opposition to the war before he was in the Senate, I doubt he would have defeated Hillary Clinton for the nomination. More recently he seems to have come under even more controlled management by his political handlers and pollsters, almost desperately trying to make his image as mainstream as possible. As a Democratic activist and a populist, how would you advise Obama right now?
SIROTA: Obama’s latest flip-flops are not moves to the “center” or the “mainstream” – by the empirical public opinion data on major issues, his moves are ones away from the center and from the mainstream. That’s not surprising – he has surrounded himself by Washington insiders whose definition of “the center” is radically different from where the actual center of American public opinion is. If he continues down this path, he will hurt his chances of winning the election. I would advise him to remember where mainstream public opinion is on issues like trade, the war and civil liberties is – and instead of going to the center of a corrupt Washington, go there.
STAUBER: If and when populist forces build an email list as big as MoveOn’s — and most of that list was built by MoveOn’s posturing as an ardent anti-war organization, which it is not – – and harness it for real grassroots empowerment, that is when we might see some exciting political developments that combine the Netroots and grassroots for fundamental change. I’d love to see a MoveOn-type organization that would actually trust and empower the millions of people on its email list so that the decision making, organizing and money benefit the grassroots and grow power from there upward, one in which the structure at the top is accountable to and elected by the members. It’s hard to have a political democracy when we don’t even have democratic organizations or movements. I’ve talked with some of the leadership of MoveOn about this, but they have no intention to democratize and will remain a top-down marketing and fundraising organization. How do you view this challenge of building a powerful new populist movement serves a movement rather than serving a Party or a small elite of decision makers who fund and run liberal think tanks?
SIROTA: It’s a huge challenge and gets to a deep psychological issue. Are we willing to think in movement terms, or are we going to keep succumbing to partisan terms foisted on us by a shallow media? Breaking free of that latter propaganda is no easy task – it requires a real commitment to grassroots organizing and education. That’s unglamorous stuff – the kind of stuff that doesn’t get you media accolades in the 24-hour news cycle. But it’s the kind of stuff that builds real power. I would say that if the institutions of the much-vaunted new progressive infrastructure are interested only in being celebrated in the short-term, meaningless media cycle, then they should do what they are doing. But if they are interested in actually building a movement that wields real power, they need to radically change from autocratic institutions looking for applause from Big Money, Big Media and big politicians, to democratic institutions looking to make meaningful change. There’s a reason why the labor movement continues to be the most durable and powerful movement apparatus in human history: it is fundamentally a democratic movement. Trying to build a progressive movement on an autocratic model is a concept that may change the deck chairs on the Titanic – but ultimately a concept that leaves everyone on a sinking ship.
STAUBER: What is the best way for people to find out more about your writing, work and new book?