End the Hostile Takeover

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 discussed.

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 it.

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".

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