September 11, 2008
Under Consideration: David Sirota, The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington, Crown (2008), 400 pages.
David Sirota begins his tour of American populism by telling about how he hung around with leftists, got drunk, daydreamed for a while, and then threw up. Sirota’s The Uprising has ambitious aims”a no holds barred, behind-the-scenes look at the anti-Establishment movements of Left and Right grouped under the catchall term “populist.” Such movements and organizations include antiwar groups, Democratic politicians, progressive third parties, Lou Dobbs, the Minutemen, shareholder activists, and union organizers. Sirota deserves credit for capturing the vague Zeitgeist of these disparate actors and uniting them into a more or less coherent narrative. But in the end, the real story behind contemporary American populism is not the one Sirota wants to tell.
Hunter Thompson wannabe Matt Taibbi laughably hails Sirota as “the most important progressive voice we have in this country.” The self-importance of a Thompson (and to a far lesser extent Taibbi) is forgivable because their hijinks usually advance the narrative in some way. Sirota’s book, in contrast, reads like the ramblings of a mediocre blogger, which of course he is. Even in the midst of his adventures, which are really just conversations with various people, he can”t refrain from telling us about old jobs, the food he’s eating, or what he thinks about someone’s clothes. But unlike gonzo journalism, Sirota keeps the focus on himself rather than his subjects (refraining from informing us about his cat or how he couldn”t get a prom date). Instead of a hard-hitting account of grassroots politics, we get the flowery musings of a leftist activist.
Mercifully, Sirota is an activist, not just a hack, and some of these musings almost save the book. Saul Alinsky is a dominating presence, and Sirota does not idly boast that his copy of Rules for Radicals is dogeared. He has a keen eye for the smallest details, as he effortlessly links the lengthy, confusing slogans of antiwar protesters to their outdated strategy. His dismantling of what he refers to as “The Protest Industry””those who believe participation in the flawed system is immoral”is perfect. He elegantly outlines the factors that have undermined the effectiveness of public protest, explains the self-perpetuating ghettoization of leftist activism, and suggests alternative strategies. He also dismantles The Players, the political insiders that use media driven campaigns to exploit the Iraq War and elect Democrats to office. Sirota explains the futility of such a strategy and how issu-based campaigning within a party is not only principled but effective.
Sirota is similarly sure footed when discussing the Working Families Party or the various politicians he profiles. He somewhat idealizes them but asks difficult questions and calls them out on platitudes. Though a Democrat, Sirota has no illusions about the cowardice of the Democratic Senate puffing about non-binding resolutions. Sirota is absolutely at his best when describing the theory and execution of shareholder activism, as practiced by a margarita drinking, swearing nun named Sister Pat who apparently has the job of protesting global warming at meetings of ExxonMobil. (Something tells me there is also a book to be written here about the vocations crisis in Holy Mother Church.)
The problem is that the purpose of the book is not tactics, and while Sirota’s various observations are educational, not enough actually happens to justify his narrative approach. More crucially, his self-centeredness results in a fatally limited and conventional perspective when it comes to profiling right wing populism. Pitchfork Pat, the man who literally portrayed himself as leading a mob of torch waving peasants gets one lonely mention when Sirota notes in passing that Pat Buchanan opposed trade with China “out of pure xenophobia.” This may pass over at Daily Kos, but seems a little thin when we are paying $25.95.
Sirota’s chapter on the Minutemen is especially painful. Somehow, he characterizes the Minutemen as a militia. Militias, of course, were anti-state groups dedicated to destroying the power of the federal government. Sirota, in contrast, finds boring flag-wavers who spout the usual “I”m not a racist” and “I support legal immigration” platitudes and characterize their efforts not as direct action, but as a protest to beg the government to come save them. Even when faced with such a timid rationale, Sirota can”t seem to stop fixating on the guns, which seems unusual for a guy supposedly from Montana.
Though he is quick to characterize the Minutemen as fearful, Sirota constantly writes like he is going to soil himself when he meets conservatives. His is a dark and sinister world of white supremacists and right wing puppet masters plotting in the shadows and hiding behind every rock. Human Events, with its elderly congressmen writing about tax cuts, becomes a “fringe right” publication. The John Birch Society is one of America’s “oldest white supremacist groups” that makes Sirota’s “stomach turn.” As not even the SPLC makes this accusation, this was news to me, as I suppose it is also news to the black members of the JBS’s Speakers Bureau. The earnest pro-lifers of Chuck Baldwin‘s Constitution Party are also “close to an official political wing of the militia movement.” Sirota is blind to the systematic excommunication of right-wing populist dissenters such as Buchanan and Peter Brimelow and contempt for restrictionists such as Tom Tancredo and Lou Dobbs in the party of Bush, Rove, and McCain. If Sirota sounds like he needs a change of shorts if he met Jack Kemp, one can only imagine what he would do if he met Taki.
More significantly, such ignorance totals his theories about the nature of American populism. Sirota characterizes the political operatives who captured the
Republican nomination for Barry Goldwater and set up the Beltway conservative movement as the political entrepreneurs of the Right’s own “Protest Industry.“Likening politicos and establishment politicians working within the GOP to radicals working outside the system is shockingly stupid and only makes sense if Bill Kristol is a right-wing extremist. Even forgiving that, it is foolish to compare the conservative movement to ineffective protesters when the emerging progressive infrastructure has explicitly modeled itself on the Beltway Right that Sirota keeps telling us is so effective (if only). Nonetheless, Sirota assures us that the real explanation for right wing populism is fear.
The only other conceivable explanation, of course, is ignorance. Republican plutocrats wearing top hats are still fooling the beleaguered proletariat into voting against their interests. Though Sirota succeeds in showing that the American working and middle class is being destroyed by a corporate/government alliance, he does not tell us how American workers have anything to gain from being dispossessed by Mexicans or ruled by leftists who think they are all dangerous extremists. How or why those same evil capitalists tend to fund the leftist groups and support the open-borders movement is also never addressed.
Even Sirota’s tired Marxism is inconsistent and overcome by his Pavlovian leftist instincts. Insofar as Sirota attempts to analyze the economic issues created by globalization and free trade, he casually cuts through complicated discussions of labor economics, comparative advantage, and international law by arguing essentially, “make wages higher.” Those who oppose this are wingnuts, cynical opportunists, or evil. However, when it comes to Mexican immigration, Sirota adopts the furrowed brows of the Great and the Good and earnestly tries to lecture Minutemen that they should try to lobby for economic justice in Mexico rather than trying to protect the border. When a Minuteman points out that the flood of illegal immigration is actually preventing Mexican reforms from taking place, Sirota tells us, well, Mother Jones says that would be bad for Mexico and it is all too complicated for them”or us”to understand. However, when the issue is the perfidy of H1-b visas, Sirota suddenly transforms into Joe Guzzardi of Vdare.com. Since he is talking with a card carrying Communist Party member though, it is a simple issue again. One can only wonder what Sirota would do if he met some right wingers who oppose H1-bs. If he didn”t tell them that it was their fault for not providing enough food stamps in the Punjab or funding for Head Start in the slums of Delhi, he might just compromise and tell us it’s all very complex.
Such blindness means that Sirota’s book ironically torpedoes the idea that there is a right wing/left wing populist alliance forming on issues like trade, immigration, or the war. Justin Raimondo has written that “a Left-Right alliance of viscerally antiwar liberals and nationalist “America First” conservatives will naturally evolve over time.” Sirota’s book suggests that Paul Gottfried is closer to the truth. Leftists are not delighted to discover antiwar or anti-free trade conservatives who hate the neocons as much as they do. If anything, we’re regarded as more evil or even more dangerous for supporting the right policies for immoral reasons. The populist Right is Right, the populist Left is Left, and never the twain shall meet. This book, and the uprising itself, is one big missed opportunity.
Kevin DeAnna is Deputy Field Director for the Leadership Institute and President of Youth for Western Civilization.
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