SEATTLE - This week on my national book tour, I had the opportunity to debate conservative leader Grover Norquist on KUOW - Seattle's NPR affiliate. The topic of the debate was my new book, THE UPRISING, and specifically the rise of populism in American politics. You can listen to the debate here - it begins about half way into the interview.
Norquist, one of the architects of the original conservative uprising of the 1980s and 1990s, is a good indicator of where the conservative movement is today. As you can hear, the Right is angry with the Bush administration for not being more conservative on a whole host of issues - and you can sense from Norquist how ideologically bankrupt conservatives really are today.
For a generation or so, the Right has dynamically adapted its reactionary ideas to sound like a populist, anti-Establishment, for-the-little-guy agenda. But thanks to all the crises we now face from those ideas -- an energy crisis, stagnant wages, national security catastrophes, a global warming emergency -- it has become much easier for progressives to unmask the Right as what I called Norquist: Fake populists.
The concept of fake populism is an important one as we move into the superheated general election campaign.
Just as Norquist tries in the debate to package environmental degradation, oil industry handouts and tax cuts for billionaires as policies designed to help us regular folks, so will John McCain try to present more NAFTA-style trade deals and more war in Iraq as populism. And the more we label it for what it is -- fake populism -- the more we will show the country the difference between a true majority agenda and the Beltway elitism of the Right.
What struck me most about the debate with Norquist is how truly out of touch with ordinary people he really is.
This is a person who in the face of $4.50 gasoline and $40 billion in ExxonMobil profits tells us that we should give away more policy goodies to the oil companies. This is a person who in the face of polls showing the public thinks the tax system is fundamentally unfair in the wake of the Bush tax cuts, says we should nonetheless push forward with even more regressive tax cuts. This is a person who in the face of massive budget deficits and social service cuts, says we should slash corporate tax rates, even though our effective corporate tax rate is among the lowest in the industrialized world. This is, in short, a person who is so insulated inside the Beltway and so coddled by the Big Money interests that have financed his career that he quite literally has no idea that there's an uprising going on throughout the country -- and no official photos of him with statues of Ronald Reagan can hide that reality. He seems genuinely unaware of the trends on both the Right and Left that I report on in my book.
Of course, I praise Norquist at the beginning of the debate for his tactical brilliance in building a movement (and he is featured in my book because of this). The pressure he has put on Republicans from the Right has been remarkably effective -- and progressives could learn a thing or two about the value of a more confrontational attitude towards Democrats on our own issues for our own uprising. That said, I think this debate shows that the conservative movement is indeed buckling under the bankruptcy of its ideas. And as we continue building our uprising and exposing their fake populism, we are getting closer to the truly exponential change that has marked other uprising moments in American history.
Listen to the full debate here, and then go pick up THE UPRISING at Amazon.com or through your local independent bookstore. Also, make sure to check the book tour schedule at www.davidsirota.com/uprising - I hope to see you on the trail!