"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



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Sunday, July 27, 2008


Can people power in the form of grassroots activism and often uncoordinated populist movements succeed in challenging the deeply entrenched power structures that have democracy in a stranglehold in the U.S.? David Sirota in his new book examines the rise of Western populism in the lead up to the elections in November and what effect they may have upon the status quo of U.S. politics. - Editor

Book World: 'The Uprising'

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2008/06/02/DI2008060202445.html

David Sirota
Political Columnist, Author of "The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington"
Wednesday, June 4, 2008; 12:00 PM

Author and political columnist David Sirota, who was a senior campaign strategist to Democrat Brian Schweitzer in his successful run for governor of Montana, was online Wednesday, June 4 at noon ET to discuss his new book, " The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington," and how the resurgence of Western populism could reshape the political map in November.

Book World review: Rooting for a Revolution (Post, June 4)

The transcript follows.

Sirota will be giving a reading and signing books at 6 p.m. tonight at Borders on L Street in Washington. Sirota is also the author of "Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government -- And How We Take It Back." He is a co-chair of the Progressive States Network and a senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future. His other political work has included advising Ned Lamont, who defeated Sen. Joe Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic primary (before losing to Lieberman, then running as an independent, in the general); chief spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee; and press secretary for independent Vermont Rep. Bernard Sanders.

Madison, Wis.: In what was does the populist uprising challenge the dominance of transnational capital? Can a fragmented populist movement successfully challenge the corporatist framework -- from agribusiness and energy to voting and media reform? Or does the success of such a movement to restore participatory democracy require a condensing of efforts behind a unique rallying point?

David Sirota: This is a great question - I think some condensing needs to take place, and as I say in the book, it's not clear that condensing is going to happen. I think there's a good chance it will around unifying issues like opposing NAFTA-style trade deals, raising wages, regulating oil companies, etc. But never underestimate the forces of the status quo to divide that unity through cultural, racial, and fear-based messages.

Freising, Germany: Do you think that the rise of Internet blogging and the ability to pick and choose your own biased source of news has encouraged the re-emergence of populist politics on the right and left?

David Sirota: Yes, I do - but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think people can now find anti-Establishment viewpoints much more easily than they could have in the past. And I think that is starting to make people realize that the reality being fed to us by those in power is not the reality of the world. Part of the backlash that this uprising is about is a backlash to a media that is increasingly seen as part of the problem - not part of the solution.

Seattle: What's been your biggest surprise on the book tour so far?

David Sirota: The acceptance by many progressives that we have to start looking at where we can make common cause with rank-and-file conservatives. In such a polarized political environment I expected that thesis in my book to be met with hostility on the Left - but in fact I think people are starting to get the idea that we have to find commonalities with the other side.

Harrisburg: How does the populist movement fight the huge costs of getting elected -- costs that I note have escalated in the past few decades -- and the fact the press won't take a congressional candidate seriously unless that candidate has a quarter of a million dollars up front?

David Sirota: I think the Internet's use as a fundraising instrument - and specifically as an instrument of small-dollar fundraising - has allowed candidates who use it properly to feel more free of Big Money interests than before - and therefore to more aggressively try to represent the uprising when in office. That said, Big Money interests still have huge influence in politics, and that's why if this uprising is going to become a successful movement, it will have to put public financing of campaigns as a central part of its agenda.

Harrisburg, Pa.: You have advised a governor. What can state governments do to best extend progressive policies? How much impact might taking such actions as making tax collections more progressive, increasing the minimum wage, and creating tax breaks for business collections have if we could get a large number of states together to take such actions?

David Sirota: I'm glad you asked this question - in the din of the presidential election, we often forget all the other arenas of change like state legislatures. In the 1980s, conservatives focused on state legislatures for their uprising through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council - they knew that states could wield a huge amount of power on all sorts of issues because states deal with the most important area of government: money.

States can do all sorts of things - crack down on corporate crime (see Colorado's upcoming ballot initiative), make taxes more progressive (see the first chapter of my book), and even get involved in reforming our international trade policies through their procurement policies (see Public Citizen's website). So it's not what states can or can't do - it's what this uprising is willing to invest in states in terms of activism and pressure that will determine HOW MUCH states will do.

Chicago: Hey David, Why hasn't the federal bailout of the financial sector elicited more outrage from populists?

David Sirota: I think it has in the sense that the headlines about it have only reinforced the idea that the government no longer even pretends to work for regular people. So while people may not be thinking explicitly "I don't like that the government gave Bear Stearns a lot of money" I think they are thinking more generally that "wow, this government is really out of control."

Alexandria, Va.: So with this new movement, how hopeful can we be about enacting a 100 percent estate tax soon?

David Sirota: Pretty far away, I'd say, because tax reform is probably the toughest part of this uprising. Then again, if you read the first chapter of the book, you will see that the tax debate is finally starting to thaw from the right-wing freeze. Thirty years of conservative propaganda on taxes has set back the tax debate incredibly far. So getting a progressive tax debate about tax inequality going will certainly happen, it is going to be a gradual process.

Crestwood, N.Y.: Haven't read your book yet (but I plan to) and don't know how you answered this question: If the president-elect isn't named Paul, Huckabee or Kucinich, exactly what does Wall Street have to fear? Aren't the hedge fund trillionaires all in bed with Obama and the Democrats? As for Mc Cain and his good pal Sen. Gramm ... well, don't make me laugh.

There has been zero impact from the golden-parachute scandals, Enron, etc., etc.; the confidence game under the guise of "deregulation" continues. Barring a 1929-style crash, I don't see how we get a populist reform and overhaul of our financial sector, nor do I see how a President Obama who tries to do the right thing succeeds in this gargantuan task. Do you?

David Sirota: I think you are right - there is less for Wall Street to fear from the presidential candidates. But one of the key points my book makes is that presidential politics is really only one avenue of making change in a democratic society. The book talks about how there are all sorts of other arenas to make change - both electoral and in terms of direct action. In the electoral arena, we can pressure state government to crackdown on financial abuse (anyone remember Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's record?). In the direct action arena, workers can unionize their workplace to bargain collectively (last year was the first uptick in union membership in many years).

So the myth that the media foists on us about presidential politics being the only avenue of change is just that - a myth. And its a pernicious myth, because it distracts our attention from the other arenas where we can really make a difference - and where the uprising IS really making a difference.

Minneapolis: Now that we know the two major party candidates, can you compare their relative abilities to inspire support as populists? The conventional wisdom would seem to say Obama has it, McCain does not. Is this simple, obvious answer the correct one?

David Sirota: I don't think its as simple as that in terms of these two candidates. McCain has shown a populist streak in his past legislation and rhetoric against Big Money interests. That legislation and rhetoric may now be a thing of the past - but he may well resurrect it in the general election. Obama certainly could harness this uprising - and I think he has to some extent in the primary. But he will have to get comfortable with a more full-throated populist economic message on issues like trade and globalization. Neither candidate has shown any desire to be a real class-based populist - but the candidate who does realize the power of that kind of politics will harness this uprising and probably be elected President.

Boston: Hey David -- if you had to point to an economist who conveys your views, who would it be? Michael Hudson, Robert Pollin, Karl Marx?

David Sirota: Ha-Joon Chang.

Los Angeles: A flaw with U.S. capitalism is that Bear Sterns's chairman can receive $61 million after leading the company to its demise, billions in shareholder losses and a government-backed bailout. Formerly, Republicans championed limited government regulations (perhaps because regulated company officials make large political contributions) but Bush killed that Republican brand with regulatory expansion through the Patriot Act, leading to reduced civil liberties. Now Bushies want to expand regulation of financial markets. One wonders if these new regulations would've exposed Elliot Spitzer's hooker uses sooner than Patriot Act SARs.

I have some new regulations to propose: Bar federal employees regulating banks, brokerages and hedge funds from working for these companies until a reasonable period has expired, say three to five years (helps avoid conflicts of interest, such as what occurred in the in 2002-2003 Boeing-Pentagon scandal). Purchasers of a stock that experiences dramatic decline in stock price within 60-90 days of purchase (e.g. Bear Stern going from more than $100 to $2 since Dec 2007) should be able to reverse the transaction if the purchase decision was based on fraudulent or grossly inaccurate accounting information the company reported. If grossly inaccurate or fraudulent information is discovered, all bonuses paid to company and brokerage officials based on such information should be subject to recovery by regulators and paid to company shareholders.

David Sirota: These are the kinds of proposals I expect to bubble up as the financial meltdown gets worse, and the public gets more angry.

Washington: Hi David. I enjoyed reading your book very much, and blogged about it. One of the questions I had in my blog post was about the phenomenon of many, many people self-identifying as political independents in the U.S. (about 40 percent of the electorate) in rejection of the two major parties. I was wondering: What do you think of that phenomenon in relation to the various uprisings happening all over the country? And what do you think of the efforts to try and harness that widespread dissatisfaction into a political movement -- specifically, the efforts of the Committee for a Unified Independent Party, or CUIP?

David Sirota: I think the increase in self-identified independents is an expression of anger. I'm not sure self-identified independents are actually voting much differently than they did before - that is to say, I think many people who call themselves independent also continue to vote with one party reliably. However, the change in party registration/affiliation is certainly people saying they've had it with what's going on. The question is whether that initial step will lead to more constructive activism...

Silver Spring, Md.: It is a fact that there is considerably more excitement and interest in the "battle" between fundamentally mainstream candidates than in the wars and famines that are raging all over the world today. What does this say to you about how much Americans really "care" about anything? While I agree with much of what you have said in many of your writings, I find that mainstream progressive thought is much more a case of people like you trying to sell the people a different-colored car than an alternative mode of transportation.

David Sirota: In advertising, they say the goal is to manufacture desires before you ever sell a product. Make people desire something and then the sales pitch for the specific product is easier. The excitement and interest in the battle between milquetoast candidates is merely the product of that manufacture of desire by the media. The media focuses only on presidential politics, and within that, only on a narrow set of issues and candidates in that arena. That leads us to believe that that's where the real "battle" is - when in fact, as my book shows, the battle is all around us in an infinite number of arenas.

I think it's hard to support your assertion that my writing is attempting to sell a different colored car, as you put it. I write about issues like globalization, trade and corporate power that very, very few authors/political journalists write about in any kind of power-challenging way.

Arlington, Va.: Mr. Sirota, I've listened to each of the three major presidential candidates (one of whom, by nature of the system, is guaranteed to be the next president) cheer the alleged "political awakening" of America's young people. Their emphasis is that these new "activists" either are donating money to Democrats and Republican or are active raising money from donors.

Thus, the main activity of the select few who have heard the call to activism is to collect yet more cash for an increasingly unresponsive, unrepresentative political system choked with special interest and PAC money. Personally, I find this news depressing. I don't feel a new wave of change and activism; I sense only a new generation a buying into a broken electoral system at a younger age than their parents, and nothing more. I'm hardly a radical, but I find the whole mess discouraging to say the least.

David Sirota: I can see your point of view - and I sympathize with it to a certain extent. I worry that lots of people getting involved in the presidential campaign think the campaign itself is a political movement. But as history has shown, candidates, parties and elections are not movements - they are vehicles for movements. Those who think any of these candidates or any of these elections are movements are deluded.

washingtonpost.com: You mention the power of state governments; how successful do you think a Republican strategy of playing defense in 2008 and conserving resources to fight tooth-and-nail -- especially on the state level -- in 2010 would be? Mid-term elections tend to favor the minority party as it is, and 2010's majorities would decide how to redraw district lines, post-census.

David Sirota: I think that's precisely what the GOP will do, but even beyond that electoral strategy, I think that will be their public policy strategy. If Republicans are shut out of Congress and the presidency, they will fire up their well-developed state-based infrastructure to take the conservative legislative fight to individual state legislatures in a more intense way than we've seen before.

washingtonpost.com: Do you think it's possible for Sen. Obama to win Montana and other just-out-of-reach Western states without moving so far to the center that it alienates the progressives what brung him to the dance?

David Sirota: I definitely think it is possible - but it will require him to understand that the left-right stereotypes presented by the media is not the continuum of politics in the heartland. "Moving to the center" is defined by the Washington, D.C. media as, for instance, supporting the Patriot Act. But the Patriot Act is hated in places like Montana and Colorado (see their state legislatures' near-unanimous passage of bipartisan legislation condemning the act).

If Obama is to win these kinds of states, he will have to move in a more populist direction on issues of civil liberties and economic issues - if he follows the DLC-ish faux "centrist" line of bowing down to corporate America and the national security state, he will lose these places decisively.

Evanston, Ill.: Hey David, what is your response to the argument that socialism is inefficient because of the absence of a dynamic price system -- i.e. the socialist calculation debate?

David Sirota: Forgive my ignorance, but I don't know the specific argument you are referring to. However, what I would say is this: the argument that government involvement in the marketplace is always inefficient is not supported by fact. Just one example: Medicare expends about 4 cents on the dollar for paperwork and administrative costs. The private health care market expends about 15 cents on the dollar for the same kind of thing. In short, in the health care market, we have evidence that the government can be far more efficient than the private system.

washingtonpost.com: What do you think of the criticism in today's Post review that your book, while well-written, pulls together disparate groups that don't constitute anything like a movement yet?

David Sirota: I was confused by the criticism - because that's precisely the point I make at the beginning and end of the book. These are disparate groups. They are all motivated by a similar backlash sentiment against the Establishment - but its not yet clear whether they can forge a full-fledged movement around a common agenda. That's why I called the book "The Uprising" rather than "The Movement" - an uprising is that middle-stage between total disengaged chaos and a full-fledged movement. Whether this uprising becomes a movement is not yet clear - that's the very point of the book.

Silver Spring, Md.: You wrote: "I think it's hard to support your assertion that my writing is attempting to sell a different-colored car, as you put it. I write about issues like globalization, trade and corporate power that very, very few authors/political journalists write about in any kind of power-challenging way." You really ought to get out more -- I have found all of your writings entirely predictable. I'm not trying to be mean, that's just how it is.

David Sirota: One's "predictable" is another's "consistent." I make no apologies for advocating what I advocate, nor do I apologize for refusing to be inconsistent in order to satiate your desire for surprises.

David Sirota: Thank you all for being here and participating. I hope you pick up the book, and feel free to email me your comments at ds@davidsirota. And most importantly, join the uprising!

Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

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