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May 23, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "So what I'm really trying to do is to open
up the possibility to folks that all of this stuff -- the entire
system -- is not just a creation of nature. It didn't just happen. On
all of these issues, we are experiencing a very deliberately
constructed system. It's constructed by humans; it's not something
that God just created. And once we realize that, then we realize that
we can actually change it."]

By Joshua Holland, AlterNet

In his new book, Hostile Takeover, David Sirota unleashes a stinging
300-page indictment of a system corrupted almost beyond recognition.
We have a government in which the greater good is subsumed by
corporate interests day in and day out, and where political discourse
itself is framed by those very interests; we end up discussing
everything but the reasons why average Americans are worse off than
they were 30 years ago.

The indictment has a number of counts -- the corporatocracy has gamed
the tax codes, assaulted our right to a day in court, kept us from
discussing single-payer health care and launched a relentless assault
on Americans' right to organize. Sirota shows how the economy that
most of us experience has been bled dry by "Big Money" interests while
working people have faced a death by a thousand cuts, great and small.

Hostile Takeover is a gut-punch for anyone who still believes in the
American Dream. But while Sirota gives us an unmerciful look into how
the system is gamed, he doesn't leave readers feeling hopeless. Under
a veneer of world-weary cynicism, Sirota's an optimist. Central to the
work is his belief that if people are given a greater understanding of
how the cards have been stacked against them, they can and will defeat
the hostile takeover in its tracks.

I spoke with Sirota last week by phone as he was killing some time in
Chicago between stops on his book tour.

Joshua Holland: You pinpoint the beginning of the Hostile Takeover in
the early 1970s -- as many others have. Most people agree the
proximate causes were the building of conservative infrastructure, the
conservative media, etc. But I want to ask you about the bigger
picture, looking beyond the proximate causes. I mean, was there a
shift in our political culture then, or in our corporate culture?

David Sirota: I think what you're asking is -- and I get this question
a lot -- money has always played a role in politics, what's different
about how it plays out now?

JH: Yeah, you're better at this question thing than I am.

DS: I've been doing a lot of interviews. My take is that conservatives
got smarter in the ways you described, but I think one of the ways
that corporate America got smarter was that they began to understand
that there was value to them in infiltrating the Democratic Party.
They realized that owning the Republican Party was not enough, and
that grabbing a chunk of the Democratic Party -- even a small chunk --
would allow the system as a whole to radically shift to the right far
more quickly than if they just pursued a binary strategy with one
party. We used to have one big business party and now we have one and
a third -- or one and a quarter -- and that quarter is really integral
to what's allowed the hostile takeover to move towards completion --
or at least to intensify.

JH: So you don't see both parties as being hopelessly sold out. What's
your view of the likelihood of retaking that quarter -- of retaking
the Democratic Party?

DS: I'm very optimistic about that.

JH: You are.

DS: Yes, I am. I've been asked why I stick it out with the Democratic
Party. Well, I think my book lays out examples of why. I think there
are really some reasons to be encouraged. There are some people in a
bad system who are fighting back, I think there's infrastructure being
built to better support people who are willing to stand up for
ordinary citizens and I think people are starting to realize that
there is political -- electoral -- value in a politics based on
fighting back against the hostile takeover. I've written about that
before, about how Democrats in red states are winning by being far
more populist.

JH: Can this happen before we get public financing of campaigns?
Because in your book, you do what a lot of policy people do: You lay
out a lot of smart alternatives -- a lot of commonsense policy fixes.
But elsewhere you talk about how we don't have an honest policy debate
-- that those debates are being smothered in huge "piles of steaming
bullshit," in large part because of where the money comes from. Given
that, is public financing a precondition for getting anything done?

DS: I wouldn't call it a precondition, because I think a lot of the
reforms I lay out are possible within a broken system. But, I do think
that you can't really hope in the long-term sense to successfully beat
back the hostile takeover unless you have public financing of
elections. So there are a number of battles we can win, right now,
without systemic change, but we can't win the overall war -- over the
long-term -- without systemic changes like public campaign financing.

JH: Let me ask you about populism more broadly. I caught you last week
in D.C. speaking with Thomas Frank.

DS: Yeah.

JH: And his thesis is that economic populism trumps those -- sort of
made-up -- wedge issues, the social issues. And you hear a lot of
people saying that maybe we should abandon some of those issues in
order to get those economic issues to the fore. I have very mixed
feelings about that. What's your take? Would you de-emphasize some of
the social issues, and, if so, which ones?

DS: Well I don't agree with the premise. I think people are voting on
the social issues because they see no clear contrast or choice -- or
authenticity -- on economic issues. In other words, the supremacy of
social issues in American politics today is a sign of desperation by
the public. The public has made a rational choice, seeing that neither
party is really serious, yet about standing up for their economic
interests. You see it in the polls -- people tell pollsters that both
parties are corrupt, that neither party is standing up for them, etc.
-- so I don't think that the paradigm is that social issues are more
important to people than economic issues. I think they only look more
important in a system in which fundamental economic issues aren't even

JH: That's backed up by the fact that white evangelicals who were also
union members actually went for Kerry in the last election.

DS: That's exactly right.

JH: A related point. Ruy Teixera -- someone I don't see eye-to-eye
with on a lot of issues -- pointed at a whole series of polls that
showed that Americans, by and large, are already aware that they're
being gamed by the system -- that they're being screwed over by big-
moneyed interests. So the question is, what's the value in telling
people something they already know?

DS: Well, I think he contradicts himself by saying that people already
know the system's stacked against them, and then later he cites polls
showing that people -- this is just one example -- that people see
America as the most socially mobile society in the world, with the
whole rags to riches story, etc. So he says people believe in that
mobility, even though the undisputed fact -- as documented by not-so-
liberal sources like the Wall Street Journal -- is that social
mobility in the United States is at a historic low. Social mobility
today is far below even Europe, even far below Scandinavia -- where
they basically have democratic socialism, which we're led to believe
has no social mobility.

So the first thing I would argue is that people don't know. And I'm
not saying that people are stupid but -- as I document in the book --
there's a whole propaganda system in place to make sure that they
don't know. And to make sure that people have false impressions about
the economic system they live in.

The second piece is that it's far more rational to look at the
situation and say -- if there's already a broad swath of people who
think that our government is corrupt, that big business has too much
control of the system and that corporations are running roughshod over
the country -- it's a far more logical conclusion that the reason
those people are not voting more for the Democratic Party is that the
Democratic Party hasn't served as a vehicle for those feelings. So
he's going out of his way to create a narrative instead of going
straight from point A to point B.

The simple conclusion is that if people already believe this, and
they're not supporting the Democrats, then the Democrats aren't doing
a good job in showing why they're the party to address these problems.
It's a far more circuitous route to say, "Well, people already believe
the system's being gamed, so there's no reason to tell them the truth
about it because they're not supporting the party for other reasons."
I just think that doesn't make any sense. Usually, the simplest
explanation is best.

JH: His big problem is that he used all this data based on how people
view themselves, so people say, "Yes, I'm doing great." But we have
this massive economic propaganda that raises expectations so high --
and you hear all the time is that the economy is going gangbusters,
and you're standing still, so you end up thinking it must be something
you're doing wrong. Then a pollster calls up and says, essentially,
"Are you a loser?" Of course you're going to say "no."

DS: That's exactly right. That's a huge piece of the puzzle here. I
touch on it in my book, but I think it's a huge issue that you could
write a whole other book about: the propaganda of telling people what
they believe. In other words, the messages in our media aren't just
lies about individual issues, but they're also lies about what we, the
public, are supposed to think. That goes into the whole question of
what's centrist. What it means to be centrist -- as defined by the
political system -- is far to the right of what's centrist or
mainstream in public opinion polls on issues. When the political
establishment says that everyone thinks the economy is doing great --
"Look at the stats, the economy is doing well" -- what it does is it
creates this dissonance, where people look at their own situation and
say, "I'm different, so I must be a freak, and I better just keep
quiet and fall into line."

JH: I wonder how much it feeds into our high rates of depression and
all that, when you get all this economic triumphalism ...

DS: Or look at how that plays out in personal debt. We're being told
that everyone's doing great, and we live in a culture where
materialism equals status, and more and more people are going into
debt to keep up. I think it's the sickest form of propaganda when the
political establishment purports to tell the public what they believe,
when in fact there's no data to show that the public really believes

JH: Let me switch gears here for a moment and ask you what you mean
when you write that people who are interested in change should become
a big fish in a little pond?

DS: There's a lot of media pressure to focus our political activism
only on the White House -- and to a lesser extent Congress -- and if
and when people get engaged on that level, people don't really have a
sense they're having a real impact because it can feel so massive. And
we need to get out of that cycle. If we get engaged at the state and
local levels, we can have a lot more impact. On many of these issues,
at the state or local levels, they affect our daily lives in the same
ways -- if not more -- than on the national scene. I mean if you want
to talk about taxes, state taxes impact our lives as much as federal
taxes. But people can see far more impact when they get involved at
that level.

And it's also a long-term strategy. If you change things farther down
the political food chain, over the course of time that change works
its way up. In the long run, if you get good people in your state
legislature or your city council, they will become the next members of
Congress and the future presidents.

JH: Now, you made an important point about how the big-business
right's greatest success has been convincing people that they're
powerless to effect change. Are you at all concerned that a book like
this is going to make people throw their hands in the air and think,
"It's so hopelessly corrupt; why should I even bother?"

DS: I'm not, because I think that right now people are looking for a
vehicle for their righteous outrage. And we suffer in this country
from there only being a right-wing cultural vehicle for that outrage
rather than a mainstream populist vehicle. I'm not one of those people
who are afraid of being called angry -- you know the Republicans talk
about the "angry left" and that's a complete joke. Just flip on talk
radio, and you'll see real anger. I think the vast majority of the
population is angry, and I'm not afraid of that anger. I think people
should be angry, and I think people are looking for a political avenue
to express that anger.

My writing isn't like a negative campaign ad -- a negative campaign ad
is designed to suppress turnout by saying, "Look, the other guy's a
dirtbag." What I'm trying to say is: Look at how corrupt this system
is to its bone. And look at how we're being lied to, and all the
solutions that I lay out are relatively straightforward. And the way
we get there is for us to start thinking about systemic change and not
just the day-to-day political bickering you see on Hardball or Meet
the Press. In many ways, all of that is part of the corrupt system.

So what I'm really trying to do is to open up the possibility to folks
that all of this stuff -- the entire system -- is not just a creation
of nature. It didn't just happen. On all of these issues, we are
experiencing a very deliberately constructed system. It's constructed
by humans; it's not something that God just created. And once we
realize that, then we realize that we can actually change it.

A great example -- which I talk about a lot -- is these free-trade
deals, which are like a religion. They're not free -- they're
extremely protectionist. This free-trade crap is viewed like a
religion, like it's just the natural way of things. But they're
written by corporations very deliberately and in great detail in order
to do certain things and not others -- namely, protect corporate
profits, while leaving workers and the environment totally
unprotected. Once we step back and say, "Wait a minute, that's not the
natural order of things," then you can change it.

So my optimistic hope is that when people realize that this corrupt
system is not divine and is changeable, then people will react.

Read an excerpt from David Sirota's book "Hostile Takeover".

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.