May 8, 2006
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David Sirota, Up in Arms About the 'Hostile Takeover' of American Democracy
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
David Sirota is a writer, political operative, and clear-eyed strategist. His new book, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government--and How We Take It Back, not only spells out the central problems in American politics today, but offers up some real solutions. Jim Hightower has it right when he urges us to "Use this book as a lesson plan and action plan for taking our government back." Just maybe, David Sirota's ideas, efforts, and positive energy will be the guide book that Democrats and Independents have needed to figure out how to get this country turned around and back on course. Corruption, after all, wasn't part of the founding fathers' dream.
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BuzzFlash: Thom Hartmann educated me about a court ruling in California in the late 1800s that bestowed what could be called "personhood" on corporations, setting a precedent for court rulings in the future. Was that the beginning of corporations emerging as a force unto themselves in the governmental process?
David Sirota: The short answer is yes. We went from a legal definition of the corporation as something that was subservient to society to something that has equal rights with human beings. We basically empowered big money interests with even more power than their money already gave them. These corporations live longer than humans - they can live for eternity. A corporation already has a lot of power, because it basically is a concentration of wealth, but it also has other extraordinary powers, like basically living forever, and never really being subject to being put in jail like a human. Thom Hartmann is absolutely right on the history of this.
But I will say this. There used to be a line between government and the business sector. They used to be two separate entities. The government was there to protect citizens from the excesses of corporate capitalism through economic policy. It was there to protect the integrity of a properly functioning free market system that corporations and human beings operated under. Now government and big business are one and the same.
The name of my book is Hostile Takeover. The premise is that the big money interests have performed a hostile takeover of our government to the point where business and government are literally one entity. The regulator is part of the regulated. The regulated controls the regulator. Once we understand that that’s what’s really going on behind all of the happy sounding rhetoric, we can better understand why we get the public policies we get, and, more broadly, why we are now living in a society where the middle class and the working class in this country are being crushed.
BuzzFlash: Many Republicans might be scared by David Sirota and basically say that you’re anti-capitalism, you’re a socialist or a communist, because you say that corporations shouldn’t be allowed to have this influence on the government. Is there a difference between a level playing field of the free-market economy and a basically oligarchic corporate control of the government?
David Sirota: I’m sure I’ll be called any number of things. But this book is about small "d" democracy. I consider myself a small "d" democrat before I consider myself a big "D" Democrat, or a progressive, or anything else. The fact is that a democratic society requires there to be a government that enforces laws objectively in order to protect its citizens. That, basically, is what the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are all about – we, the people.
The folks who endorse the current system, by which big money interests are able to essentially control and write public policy and manipulate our political debate in this country, are the people who are anti-democratic. Those people do not really believe in the ideals that this country was founded on. They think our society should be a "survival of the fittest" race to the bottom. I categorically reject that vision. Citizens are fighting to take back their own government, and this fight is really fundamentally all about democracy. People who are on the other side don’t believe in democracy.
BuzzFlash: If you look at something like a Wal-Mart, you basically have a bureaucratic institution like a government. It’s very different from a small bike shop in Bloomington, Indiana. The person with the small bike shop isn’t controlling or unduly influencing the Washington, D.C., government. It’s the Wal-Marts, the Exxon-Mobils, the mega-corporations that have the money to, in essence, buy off the legislators.
David Sirota: That’s why I use the term "big money interests." Part of the key is "big." One of the sectors that’s most under attack and most affected by the hostile takeover of our government is small business. You walk down any Main Street in America, and you see that all the time. I live in Montana, where upwards of 80% of workers work for small businesses. In this country, there is a disparity between big money interests and the rest of us, and that includes citizens, workers, and small businesses.
That is a very critical distinction. The book is not about pro-business, anti-business. That’s one of the biggest mistakes in our political debate, and one that I actually think is deliberately fabricated by big money interests. They want to say that any effort to have the government protect citizens is anti-business. That’s absolutely not true.
BuzzFlash: We’ve returned to a robber-baron age with ever larger corporations. Halliburton and the oil companies basically are not for a free-market economy. They’re for monopoly control over their sectors.
David Sirota: That really cuts to what I assert in the book. One of the most important things the public needs to understand is that the terms of our entire political debate are artificially rigged. Just take the veneration expressed in our media and by our politicians of the "free market." We’re led to believe that we live in a truly free market, and our government is always working to protect free markets. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What our government works to do is to rig the market – to weight and to distort the free market by permitting monopoly power by, for instance, telecom companies; by permitting monopoly power by large oil companies; by passing all sorts of protectionist policies in our "free trade" policies that preserve unfair patent and copyright protections to create high drug prices in the Third World. So we don’t have a free market. That’s one of many very good examples of how big money interests deliberately skew our political debate with terms like this, and thereby make us think our government is doing exactly the opposite of what it is doing.
BuzzFlash: Let’s take one example relating to the Internet. We just saw a vote in a House committee against what is called Internet neutrality. In essence, even most of the Democrats on that committee went along with the telecom industry, allowing them to set up a two-tier Internet. The Internet is a great example of democracy in action, and it has had a huge impact because of its low barrier to entry. Already the industries that provide the pipes for it are starting to put up the barriers. They’ve got the money, which they give to the legislators who vote, and the legislators are voting to put up the barriers.
David Sirota: Meanwhile what’s absolutely lost, even beyond that, is the fact that the Internet was started in part, if not in full, with taxpayer investments.
BuzzFlash: The University of Illinois was kind of an incubator of the first wave of the Internet.
David Sirota: That’s right, and I assume the project there got federal funding. I know that the military had a lot of funding for creating the Internet back in the seventies, the point being that this is another example of something that has been papered over in our political debate – the idea that taxpayers, in many cases, are the original investors with high risk in major pieces of our economy.
Yet when those investments turn out to be profitable, taxpayers are immediately cut out of the deal. It gets privatized. And now Congress is going along with corporate America’s efforts to cut the public out of the democratic benefits of the Internet. It’s a perfect example of how there no longer is a difference between corporate America and the American government. That is to the detriment of society.
BuzzFlash: Does Jack Abramoff symbolize the hijacking of America by corporate greed?
David Sirota: Jack Abramoff shows just how permissive and out in the open the hostile takeover has become. Everyone pretends to be just totally outraged and surprised that something like this would be going on in Washington. Jack Abramoff is only the most public example of the kind of bribery that goes on in Washington every day. He really is a symbol of exactly how out of control our system has become, and exactly how undemocratic it’s become, and exactly how pervasive the hostile takeover of our government really is.
BuzzFlash: The Democratic Leadership Council, or DLC, was founded in large part on the principle that the Democrats had to compete for corporate contributions, and had to be nice to the corporations – we're stereotyping here, to some degree.
David Sirota: Actually the evolution of the DLC is just a bit different. Back in the mid-eighties, the DLC started out as an organization, at least publicly, based on trying to shift the Democratic Party on cultural and social issues, mainly in rural America. That’s why you had people like Dick Gephardt, who on many economic policies was a very solid progressive, involved in its beginnings. The organization evolved in the late eighties into what you’re talking about. I think it's important for people to understand that what really happened was this organization became a vehicle for the hostile takeover of the Democratic Party.
BuzzFlash: We’re still seeing this hostile takeover going on. For instance, do we vote with telecom in this committee, with the people who give us our campaign finance money? Or do we vote for open access to the Internet, which is really what democracy’s all about and what the Democratic Party and America should be?
David Sirota: The DLC has really moved well to the right of not only the Democratic Party, but of most Americans. They are largely a neo-conservative operation. The president of their think tank was one of the original signers on the PNAC letter.
But back on economic policy – you’re absolutely right. The DLC has in recent years taken huge amounts of money from the largest corporations, including Enron. It has become a vehicle to try to preserve and increase corporate America’s influence in the political process as a whole. The DLC’s role is to try to ensure that the Democratic Party does not become the counterweight to the other corporate party in America in a real, contrasted way on economic policy.
BuzzFlash: So it’s to be in the Republican Party’s shadow? What are you voting for if you vote for the DLC approach? It’s the cliché of "Republican lite."
David Sirota: At the ballot box, I usually vote for the Democrat. But there are forces within the Democratic Party that are equally as dangerous and equally as opposed to citizens taking back their government as there are forces in the Republican Party pursuing the same goal.
You saw it recently with the "Hamilton Project" announcement by Citigroup chairman, Robert Rubin. They are attacking teachers' unions. Here’s where the DLC and the corporate wing of the Democratic Party are actually more dangerous to this country than even some Republicans over the long term. Here’s the thing – the Republicans are supposed to be the corporate party. They don’t really pretend to be anything else. If the opposition party becomes part of the corporate consensus, in effect part of a hostile takeover, then you have an entire political system where ordinary people’s interests are not even being represented in the debate, much less in public policy. That leads potentially to a very long-term, massive shift in our society – a shift in a bad direction, and one that we are living through now, with basically all of these indicators showing that the middle and working class in America are being absolutely crushed everywhere they turn.
BuzzFlash: Let me bring up the infamous Dubai Ports security contract for $7 billion. Whatever one thinks of Bush foreign policy, this was an example of the corporate interest dominating over and probably conflicting with what our foreign policy interest would be. Financial interests now often supersede the national interest.
David Sirota: That is one of the great unspoken truths in our government today. The profit motive, in many cases, is driving our national security and foreign policy. While the President and politicians can go out and talk about, for instance, spreading democracy throughout the world, or securing the homeland, they’re only talking about that within the very narrow confines of what is permissible by the big money interests that run our country. While the President goes out and talks about homeland security, he’s talking about creating better safeguards or better national security protections only within the context of our international trade policy. Thus you see the fiasco with the Dubai Ports deal. It’s very, very troubling, and it’s bound to get us into a lot of trouble in a world where our neo-conservative foreign policy is further inflaming anti-Americanism.
BuzzFlash: My supposition and the supposition of many is that the lesson to be drawn from the Dubai incident is that, when push comes to shove, it is the financial interests that drive the deal, not the national security interest.
David Sirota: That’s absolutely true. It’s important to understand, though, that there was a victory in this specific case in terms of finally raising into the public debate the conflict between national security and the profit motive within a corporate-run government. That that issue got raised was a victory. What’s frightening is to think about how many decisions are being made on a daily basis that don’t rise to the high-profile level that this one incident came to. Throughout the national security bureaucracy, the State Department, the Defense Department, and all the other pieces of our government, decisions are made on a daily basis. Many decisions are being made purely in the interests of serving the big money interests that run our government.
BuzzFlash: Thomas Frank, author of the wonderful What’s the Matter with Kansas?, has praised your book. As he points out, despite a strong history of populism, Kansas has become a fundamentalist red state where a lot of destructive things are happening. The people seem to have been hoodwinked by the Republican Party into voting against their own interest.
How do we get them to understand that the large corporations that want a monopoly pose a threat to small business, pose a threat to the line worker, and pose a threat to the average American in Kansas? How do you convince those people that you’re on their side? You’re the one that wants to improve their standard of living. You’re the one that wants to help them participate more in the governmental process. You’re the one that wants to keep the big corporations from making financial decisions that might negatively affect national security. How does one convince these people?
David Sirota: I’ve thought a lot about this. And the first thing I’ll say is there’s no playbook. Every state and every district is different. But to understand why social issues have, in many cases, trumped economic issues, you have to give Americans some credit. I think what has happened over the last twenty or thirty years is that the public has very smartly picked up on the fact that neither party in Washington is representing their economic interests in any real way. Polls show that. They show that the public thinks both parties are corrupt, that the political process is too dominated by big money, that the corporations have too much power in our society. Polls have shown that for years.
Of course, the media doesn’t talk about that. But I think that the public understands that and has basically made a rational decision, in many cases, that if neither party is looking out for the ordinary American’s economic interests, then I’m just going to vote on who’s going to get the government out of my face and who is going to sound more like me on religious and social issues. That might be a slight oversimplification, but I think we have to understand that that is what’s going on.
Now, how do you convince people, as a political candidate or as a political party, that you are serious about representing ordinary people’s economic interest? How do you put economic issues in a real way back on the table? I think that requires political candidates who are willing to take on big money interests in a frontal way, in a public way. I think it requires political leaders who are not afraid of the labeling that the right wing and the corporate forces will throw at them if they take populist positions. The fact is, on almost every major economic issue, if you look at a poll, the public is far more progressive than what is coming out of Washington, far more distrustful of free-market orthodoxy, far more insistent on a strong federal government and state government that protects ordinary citizens. Right now, we don’t have too many politicians who are really willing to walk into that fire.
But I think there’s hope. As just one example, out here in Montana, we’ve seen an economic populist elected governor as a progressive Democrat in a state that Bush won by 60%. Governor Schweitzer, in the latest opinion poll, has his favorable to unfavorable at 74 to 18. And he’s not the only one. There are other people out there breaking the mold.
But this is a long-term battle. We have to understand that these stereotypes about both parties are in people’s minds, and the cynicism is very deeply ingrained. It’s going to take many, many years for us to turn the tide back, but I’m confident that it can be done.
BuzzFlash: Thank you so much. You do wonderful work.
David Sirota: Thank you very much.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by Mark Karlin.
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Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government--and How We Take It Back (Hardcover) by David Sirota, a BuzzFlash Premium.
Sirota Blog: http://www.davidsirota.com/