By Bill Kohlhaase
Turning radical was easy during the Vietnam War. With the draft ready to interrupt one’s life big time, politics got personal fast. And when politics get personal, people get political. Same holds true today. Lots of us could care less, as long as it isn’t our asses being sent to Iraq, as long as we don’t need health care or our jobs haven’t been outsourced. Who cares if they’re tapping our phones? We’ve got nothing to hide. Congress may be corrupt, but that’s just the way it is.
But when politics does affect us—say, the price of gas climbs above $3 a gallon—well, it’s time to start asking questions. Back in the Vietnam era, as doubts about the war led to questions about war profiteering, the truth wasn’t easy to find. Today it’s doubly hard. The prevailing wisdom trumpeted by the press, the politicians and industry spokespeople—like “America has the best health care in the world”—isn’t always fact.
David Sirota’s Hostile Takeover: How Big Money & Corruption Conquered Our Government—and How We Take It Back accuses America’s leaders of selling out the republic. Politicians, he says, answer to business, not the people. No news there. But where Sirota’s book breaks ground is in its clear, plainspoken, documented explanations of how we’re being duped, and why what passes as prevailing wisdom is often a lie.
Sirota is among the new breed of progressives that uses publications, the Internet and political activism on behalf of the little guy. A former press secretary for Vermont’s independent representative Bernie Sanders, he’s an editor at the progressive In These Times, a contributor to The Nation and a frequent guest on Air America’s Al Franken Show. He runs his own blog (www.davidsirota.com) and contributes to others. His skill is in debunking the arguments of the status quo and offering common-sense answers to today’s pressing problems. He knows how to make politics personal.
Hostile Takeover takes 10 of the most important domestic issues of our time, from energy to wages, debt to health care, and debunks what we hear over and over. The chapters are broken down into myths, lies and the occasional “pathological lies,” followed by a list of solutions. Scattered throughout the chapters are “Hacks” and “Heroes”—individuals who are either doing the corporate bidding or fighting for the people. The “Hacks” and “Heroes” don’t necessarily fall along party lines. In the chapter “Debt,” Sirota savages Indiana Democratic senator Evan Bayh for supporting the corporate-written 2005 bankruptcy bill that gutted consumer protection laws. He calls Bayh a “son of privilege” who collected over a quarter-million dollars in campaign funds from banking interests.
It’s not Sirota’s method to hurl invective and leave it at that. In Bayh’s case, he challenges the senator’s assertion that bankruptcy is for “people who engage in irresponsible behavior” by pointing out that 77,000 Indianans declared bankruptcy in 2004 because of skyrocketing medical bills. Is it irresponsible to seek needed medical care? Sirota draws further distinctions by highlighting the exorbitant profits of the companies behind the legislation (the credit industry cleared $30 billion in 2004). The unasked question: did Congress really think the industry needs larger profits at the expense of people who are already suffering?
Sirota excels at digging up the hypocritical details. Even as congressmen fell over one another in vocal support of the troops, they voted down minimum bankruptcy protections for National Guardsmen forced to leave better-paying jobs to serve in Iraq. Why would they do this? Sirota suggests money trumps patriotism every time.
Sirota’s solutions are often too obvious (“Congress should reverse its recent decision to gut bankruptcy provisions”) and the larger solution seems beyond his reach. How do we make government responsible again to the people? His final conclusions are stated in the form of good news/bad news dichotomies. Bad news: “Politicians of both parties are embracing the hostile takeover” and “The media largely ignore the hostile takeover.” Good news: “Americans are smart” and “The good guys are getting more support.” These statements hardly seem reason for optimism. Advice to “Remember the real fight, and forget the cocktail party arguments” won’t stop the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us. If we’re to end this second Gilded Age, in which corrupt politicians sit cozy in the pockets of industry captains, we’ve got to elect government that operates independently of special business interests and the wealthy. We’ve got to make politics personal. Sirota gives us the why in detail, but the how remains a mystery. Still, in the end, he’ll make you a radical.
HOSTILE TAKEOVER: HOW BIG MONEY & CORRUPTION CONQUERED OUR GOVERNMENT—AND HOW WE TAKE IT BACK, DAVID SIROTA, CROWN PUBLISHERS; 374 PAGES, $24.