Fight Now, Think Later

Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered our Government -- and How We Take It Back by David Sirota (Crown, 384 pages, $24.00)

David Sirota is the kind of pundit you'd like to have on your side in a knife fight and wouldn't want to cross in a dark alley. After toiling for years in the trenches of the U.S. House of Representatives, he began reaching a wider audience, first as the author of the Center for American Progress's daily e-mail update, then as a blogger. He took time off to work on Brian Schweitzer's successful run for governor of Montana and followed up the effort with a trifecta of articles in the Prospect, The Washington Monthly, and The Nation. In these varied media, he pioneered a bracing, take-no-prisoners prose style that combines overstatement with rhetorical flair. I once disagreed with him on the utility of trying to get the left to imitate the lemming-like party discipline of the right only to be met with the retort that I was an “insulated, election-losing” pundit who “likely hasn't worked on a winning campaign, and from the confines of a cushy job in Washington, likely never has to experience the severe economic challenges ordinary Americans face on a daily basis.”

His first book, Hostile Takeover, puts this sort of style to work in service of a thesis adequately conveyed by the subtitle: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government -- and How We Take It Back. The result is rather bracing.

Not content to stick with the small-bore corruption of Jack Abramoff's misdeeds, Sirota's target is the entire nexus of corporate cash and the political system. As ever, profit-making firms try their best to exploit customers and workers, and with the assistance of friendly politicians, pundits, and think tankers the government is doing less and less to stand in their way. Right-wing talking points on the full spectrum of economic issues are debunked, progressive alternatives vociferously defended, and no hint of doubt or hesitation enters the picture at any point. Nor does Sirota shy away from the occasional well-timed low blow. That “two of [Newt] Gingrich's ex-wives admit he sought divorces almost immediately after they were diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses” comes up not in a discussion of religious right hypocrisy, but smack in the center of a harangue about the inefficiency of America's private health-care industry.

The approach taken throughout is frankly propagandistic, and the quality of the substantive policy analysis suffers as a result. The allegations of price gouging by the oil industry would be more convincing if the author evinced some familiarity with the distinction between average and marginal costs and relied less on guilt-by-association with Enron. And how much sense does it make to tout single-payer health care as prosperity-enhancing for its ability to spare American manufacturers the burdens of insuring their employees on page 161 and then slam Wal-Mart for “provid[ing] so few benefits to employees that states are having to pick up a bigger and bigger tab” in Medicaid bills on page 162?

But if this is propaganda, it's effective propaganda, and liberalism could probably use more of it. Sirota's conception of politics as more of a fight than a discussion, where the goal is to beat your opponent into submission by any means necessary, isn't the whole truth, but it's at least half right. Certainly, the right largely plays by these rules, and while it's not my preferred style of writing, I'm glad someone on my side does it. Sirota doesn't bother with a fair-minded presentation of the other side's views on anything. His central conceit is that there's no such thing as good-faith disagreement. He stands for the interests of ordinary people, and anyone who disagrees about anything is not merely wrong, but a “hack” or a “liar,” a bought-and-paid-for agent of Corporate America (capital “C” mandatory). The libertarian Cato Institute is invariably the “group funded by financial services firms such as American Express, Citibank, and Prudential Securities” and The Heritage Foundation is the “Exxon- Mobil/Shell-funded Heritage Foundation.” Democrats who take a more moderate line than Sirota's aren't mistaken or timid; instead they “genuflect to the dlc's Big Business donors and its corporate agenda.” The Economic Policy Institute, which is partially funded by labor unions and counts many union executives as board members, is simply labeled “non-partisan.”

Back in the real world, things are a bit more complicated. My several good friends who are current or former employees of Cato are all perfectly sincere ideologues, very genuinely in a grips of a demented worldview. They tend to know less about Cato's funding than I do, “follow the money” inquiries being the sort of thing one launches against one's adversaries rather than one's employers. The DLC's free-trade (or as Sirota prefers, “free” trade) views are much more likely a reflection of the consensus view, perhaps a misguided one, inside the economics profession than of bribery. Corporate cash naturally flows to people with congenial ideologies, but it doesn't typically cause them.

Still, if the occasional argumentum ad funderam is what it takes to win an election, pass a minimum wage, or improve energy conservation, I'm happy to live with it. Finicky qualms aside, the real trouble with propaganda is that there's always the risk you'll start believing your own.

Here's where the trouble sets in. Sirota's willingness to concede that many Democrats are less than angelically pure on standing for the interests of working people is in some ways a useful corrective to the oft-blinkered partisanship of the blogosphere, but he takes things far too far. In his zeal to condemn the perfidy of moderates, Sirota ends up seeming to imply that there are no significant differences between the “bad” Democrats and the GOP, a misguided mentality whose popularity in 2000 bears at least some share of the blame for the country's current predicament. Even as unappetizing a Democrat as John Breaux was considerably better than his Republican successor, David Vitter.

More to the point, there's simply very little evidence to support Sirota's colorfully expressed view that “with the wild-eyed lunacy of a crack addict, many Democrats are so singularly focused on raking in corporate campaign cash and reinforcing the status quo that they are unable to see that their genuflecting -- not their spin, not their language, not their television ads -- is really the core of their problem.” Sellout Democrats are a real problem, but primarily in the arena of actual policy. They vote for bad bills and against good ones. That fairly small minorities of Democrats favored the 2005 bankruptcy reform bill or oppose the re-importation of prescription drugs from Canada is unfortunate, but hardly the cause of the party's electoral woes in recent years. Clear majorities of Democrats already support almost all of Sirota's proposals, with the main exceptions (i.e., full public financing of campaigns) being dubious vote-getters. Indeed, Sirota's policy agenda isn't notably different from the one on which John Kerry waged his presidential campaign.

Kerry's loss wasn't due primarily to any inadequacy of his ideas on the topics Sirota addresses. Rather, Kerry was crippled by weakness on questions of culture and national security. Sirota's implicit view that simply turning up the volume on economic populism will make the culture and security problem go away is congenial to those of us who think the party is already too far right on those topics, but smacks of wishful thinking. Putting a stop to the Hostile Takeover requires power, and progressives will have a hard time acquiring any until we learn to see the political landscape as what it is rather than what we might wish it to be.

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