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Seeing Red, Feeling Blue in Purple America

Dispatches from the Nation's Populist Uprising

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This article was adapted from The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington. Copyright © 2008 by David Sirota. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.

By all measures, those of us Americans not in the top 1 percent of income earners are under enormous economic pressure and most of us feel powerless to influence those who act in our name. Public attitudes toward Washington are reaching record levels of animosity. A Scripps Howard News Service poll in 2006 found a majority of Americans saying they “personally are more angry” at the government than they used to be. And there’s a growing backlash against the hostile takeover of our government by Big Money interests.

It’s the natural reaction from a country that is watching its pocket get picked. Wages are stagnating, health-care costs are skyrocketing, pensions are being looted, personal debt climbs—all as corporate profits keep rising, politicians pass more tax breaks for the superwealthy, and CEOs pay themselves tens of millions of dollars a year.

“There’s class warfare, all right,” billionaire Warren Buffet recently told the New York Times. “It’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

But that may not be true for much longer.


 

In a year of travel to report for my new book, The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington, I found those who are fighting back: shareholders running resolutions against corporate boards, third parties shattering the two-party duopoly, legislators kicking down lobbyists in state capitals, bloggers orchestrating primary challenges to entrenched lawmakers, or—on the darker side—armed, enraged suburbanites forming vigilante bands at our southern border. What connects these disparate uprisings is both the sense that America is out of control, and an anger at the government for creating the crises we now face.

In Helena, Montana, I watched Kirk Hammerquist testify before the state legislature in opposition to a tax measure designed to give more breaks to wealthy, out-of-state property owners. Hammerquist owns a construction company in Kalispell, and has got the whole cowboy look going—jeans, boots, and a mustache.

“I was driving down last night on an ice skating rink,” he says, recounting his journey through the snowstorm that just hit. “And I said, ‘why the heck am I doing this?’

“This state is really becoming a playground of the wealthy—we know it, we can’t deny it,” he says. “And don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against wealthy people—I’m trying my hardest to be one. … But to sit there and work on a three- to five-million-dollar home for an owner that is going to be there for a couple of months in the summer … and to think the guy that’s working with me [putting] all this pride and sweat into that house is going to get less [of a tax refund] than that person who is going to come play here for a few months—I tell ya, it made me drive all night. I speak for a lot of people, the guys that work with their hands. I had to come down and represent them.”

This is a populist uprising—a “politics that champions issues that have a broad base of popular support but receive short shrift from the political elite… It explains why today’s uprising defies the clichéd red and blue states that flash across our television screens every night.”

In Seattle, I talked to the founder of an unlikely high-tech labor union about the way a fundamental sense of unfairness is driving a growing number of high-tech workers to put aside the libertarianism that has in the past led them to vote Republican and dislike unions, as issues like wages and health care pull them in a populist direction. They are reacting to working conditions that keep them on a permanent “temporary” employment status. They have watched as 221,000 American tech jobs were eliminated by offshore outsourcing between 2000 and 2004. As one Microsoft employee told me, every tech worker now fears coming in to work to find their entire division outsourced to India.

In New York, I met with the grassroots organizers and campaign volunteers of the Working Families Party, which has used the state’s fusion voting laws to bring together voters across the political spectrum under the banner of higher wages, fair taxes, affordable housing, civil rights, and campaign finance reform—issues too often ignored in modern politics.

This is a populist uprising—a “politics that champions issues that have a broad base of popular support but receive short shrift from the political elite,” as the Atlantic Monthly’s Ross Douthat says. “This explains why you can have left-populists and right-populists,” he adds. And it explains why today’s uprising defies the clichéd red and blue states that flash across our television screens every night.

Those in the uprising are sick and tired of a political system that ignores them. Without inspiration, whatever uprising sympathies people may have are easily quashed under a sense of helplessness. But as the stories in my book show, when that inspiration exists, the uprising intensifies.

More than any time in recent history, people are ready to take action in response to the emergency that is the state of the world today.

Fear, Frustration, and Simple Answers

The Minutemen are gun-toting guys who patrol border areas looking for people trying to sneak into the United States from Mexico. They’ve been labeled everything from patriots, to vigilantes, to racists. Though they see different enemies and are plagued by paranoia, they too exhibit the pure, unadulterated frustration prevalent throughout the rest of the uprising.

As the world has gotten increasingly complex over the last thirty years, America’s public discussion about the world has gotten simpler. Issues like foreign policy, globalization, and immigration have added all sorts of gray shades to the political landscape. But with so much complexity and so many conduits of propaganda, the only messages that break through are the most crisp sound bites and the most simple explanations.

For someone like Rick, who spent 20 years developing a landscaping business in southern California, this has created a terrifying fog—one that eliminates any sense of security or control. He sees complex demographic shifts make whites a minority in his town. He watches global economic forces stress his business. He got involved with the Minutemen because he got sick and tired of trying to battle it out with other businesses that employ low-wage illegal immigrants.

JUST THE FACTS:
justthefactsfood
How the Middle Class Got Stuck
Food, Rent, Gas, Health Insurance, College… the price of things we need keeps going up.

“They don’t gotta pay workman’s compensation, no liability insurance,” he says. “I just can’t compete with them.”

But he, like all of us, has become addicted to simple answers—so addicted, in fact, that he barely notices when those answers conflict with each other.

When we talk about the environment, he says, “This country is being destroyed from within by its own government.” He says environmental regulations “are running business out of this country faster than you’ll ever know.” Yet he complains that smog is destroying Los Angeles.

When we talk about his time at Douglas, the California defense contractor now owned by Boeing, he says the company moved many of its operations from Long Beach to China.

“We’re losing our jobs, and these are good-paying union jobs,” laments the same guy who was just ripping on unions.

Right after saying it’s time to arrest corporate executives who hire illegal immigrants, he’s railing on “these politicians who’re banging on large industry, saying big business is bad.”

Joining the Minutemen is his way of taking some action in response to the emergency that is the state of the world today.

Right-wing politics has thrived by using fear and resentment to divide socioeconomic classes along racial, cultural, and geographic lines. The big problem for working-class whites, Ronald Reagan basically said, was black “welfare queens” stealing their tax dollars and inner-city gangs threatening mayhem. The big problem for yuppie Midwesterners, George W. Bush says, is middle-class East Coasters who want to legislate secular hedonism and take away their guns. The themes and the villains change, but the story line stays the same: a set of people in the economic class just below you is taking your stuff and threatening your way of life—and if those people are dealt with harshly, your troubles are over.

Joining the Minutemen allows participants to immediately behold the illusion of results in a society whose problems are so seemingly immense and immovable that activism can feel like a waste of time. It also locks them into warfare against their natural socioeconomic allies.

The Working Families Party

Working Families Party, photo by Drum Major Institute

In May, Working Families Party executive director Dan Cantor endorsed Maryland state Senator Gloria Gary Lawlah’s landmark Fair Share Health Care bill. The Working Families Party’s endorsement has become the most influential in the state of New York, and the mobilization of volunteers and votes is making the difference in key races.


Photo by Drum Major Institute

But in most places the uprising takes a positive form. In the bustling streets beneath New York’s skyscrapers, and in upstate towns far away from Manhattan, the Working Families Party (WFP) has become the uprising model with the most potential to convert all the populist anger and frustration into functioning political and legislative authority.

When I was reporting on the WFP, the party was channeling that anger into Craig Johnson’s state senate challenge in heavily Republican Nassau County, a key race in a strategy to create the first Democratic-majority senate in New York state’s recent history. When I visited the Johnson headquarters, it had the energy of a presidential campaign, and was the entire rainbow of races, colors, and ages. Though a Sunday, the office was packed with people running around making phone calls, preparing for door-knocking runs, and doing all the unglamorous tasks of local organizing. They were there because the WFP promises to champion their issues—and it delivers.

That scene is the WFP at its core: a somewhat chaotic, somewhat ragtag squad of political ground troops in the uprising. Need a crowd for a rally? Call the WFP. Need an expert field staff to help increase turnout in a contested election? Call the WFP. You ask Democratic politicians in New York what the WFP truly brings them, and they’ll all say one thing: people.

The WFP has created a space on every New York ballot for working people to organize around. It does this by taking advantage of New York’s election laws, which allow a minor party to cross-endorse another party’s candidate and effectively “fuse” with that party on the ballot.

On New York general election ballots in 2006, for instance, you could vote for Hillary Clinton on the Democratic Party line or the Working Families Party line, and either way your vote counted for Clinton.

Fusion’s benefits revolve around its ability to bring together culturally disparate constituencies under a unifying economic agenda, without risking a self-defeating spoiler phenomenon where a stand-alone third party candidate like Nader or Perot throws an election to the very candidates they most oppose.

A century ago, the culturally conservative, sometimes anti-immigrant Populist Party (or People’s Party) would often use its ballot line to cross-endorse Democratic candidates. The Democratic Party tended to be more urban-based and immigrant-dominated. But both parties were progressive on core economic issues like jobs and wages. Fusion voting helped make class solidarity more important than cultural division at the ballot box.

In a presidential election, a farmer could support progressive economic issues by voting for a Democratic candidate on the Populist line and not feel like he was betraying his feelings on, say, temperance. Meanwhile, an urban immigrant could vote for the same candidate on the Democratic line and not feel like he was endorsing the anti-immigrant views of rural America. By fusing their votes, they were more likely to get people elected who would serve their shared interest.

Fast forward to 1998, when New Party organizers—including Dan Cantor—joined with New York’s big labor unions and grassroots groups to try to use New York’s fusion laws to secure a ballot line for a new third party—one with a very narrow platform focusing on higher wages, fair taxes, affordable housing, civil rights, and campaign finance reform. The calculation was that the narrower and more populist the agenda, the more sharply the Working Families Party could define itself in voters’ minds, and the more clout it could have on its chosen issues.

“We want to stand for issues that often don’t get heard over the din of money,” Cantor told Long Island’s largest newspaper. Newsday reported that Cantor said he wanted residents to hear the name “Working Families Party” and remember: “That’s the party that thinks wages should be higher.”

The party began delivering the votes. In 2000, 102,000 WFP members voted for Hillary Clinton, including a significant number from demographics where support for Clinton was otherwise low. In 2001, the WFP provided the margin of victory for a Democrat in a tight race for a seat in the Republican-controlled Suffolk County legislature.

These and other victories have led to the WFP establishing a unique public image. A 2005 Pace University poll showed that the single most influential endorsement in New York City mayoral elections is the WFP’s—more important than the state’s major newspapers, current or former officeholders, or other advocacy groups.

The WFP’s work for Craig Johnson paid off. WFP canvassers knocked on 45,000 doors and roughly half of the 3,600 votes that provided Johnson his margin of victory were cast on the WFP’s ballot line. The New York press credited the WFP with playing a decisive role in the election.

The Future

The belief that people—not dictators, not elites, not a group of gurus—should be empowered to organize and decide their destiny for themselves seems so simple, and yet is far and away the most radical idea in human history. “Denial of the opportunity for participation is the denial of human dignity and democracy,” legendary organizer Saul Alinsky wrote.

Putting that principle into action requires genuine courage and selflessness, because participants in the uprising must make their own personal power a lower priority than popular control.

The activism and energy frothing today is disconnected and atomized. The odds against connecting it all into a true populist movement are daunting, but these stories and the others in my book show the opportunity. If more people become part of this uprising, we will not only transcend the partisan divide that gridlocks our politics, but reshape the very concept of what is possible.

Dan Cantor told me, “We have to go to people where they are on the issues they care about.” For the first time in many years, they are ready to put aside partisanship and work for shared goals. The question is whether or not we seize this fleeting moment and make it one of exponential change.


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David Sirota wrote this article as part of Purple America, the Fall 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. David is a political organizer, nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, and founder of the Progressive States Network, both nonpartisan research institutions. www.davidsirota.com

 

This article was adapted from The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington. Copyright © 2008 by David Sirota. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.

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