Hostile Takeover: The Corruption of Politics in the United States: An Interview with David Sirota

Article excerpt

David Sirota is a campaign strategist, political operative and writer, and author of Hostile Takeover: How Big Money & Corruption Conquered Our Government-and How We Take It Back. He has worked for Vermont Representative Bernie Sanders and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, among others. Sirota is senior editor at In These Times, a regular contributor to The Nation and a regular guest on the Al Franken radio show. He is co-chair of the Progressive Legislative Action Network.

Multinational Monitor: What is the significance of Jack Abramoff?

David Sirota: Jack Abramoff raises the issue of corruption from an intangible issue to one that has a face.

I don't think that the importance of Jack Abramoff is that he did something so much worse than what happens in many ways on a daily basis in Congress.

Obviously what he did was illegal and awful, but what he did is replicated in all sorts of different ways oil Capitol Hill, oftentimes in ways that are legal.

The silver lining of Jack Abramoff is that he has enabled the general public to be better educated about how deep the pay-to-play culture goes in Washington.

MM: Do people really care about the corruption issue?

Sirota: When you poll the word "corruption," it does not poll very high. That's because people tend to think that both parties are corrupt; in fact, they tend to think that politics itself is corrupt--and they're not wrong, unfortunately.

But I think that people care, when corruption is connected to the challenges they face on a daily basis. When you connect the fact that the oil industry gave hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions and was allowed to write the energy bill with the fact that people are paying $3 for gasoline, then I think people care about corruption.

Similarly, when you connect the fact that we are paying the highest prices for medicines in the world with the fact that the drug industry is writing our Medicare bills and our prescription drug laws, then I think suddenly people really do care. And they should.

What the Democrats haven't done--what neither party has done--is connect corruption to the issues of the day. When you see stories in the mainstream press that say, "Oh, the public doesn't care about corruption," that's not true. The public doesn't care about corruption in a vacuum. I think the public cares very much about corruption when the case is made--and it is an accurate case--that corruption affects their daily lives in all sorts of ways.

MM: Are all politicians corrupt?

Sirota: No, absolutely not.

Let me step back and say this: I don't think all of the politicians in Washington are corrupt. I think almost all of them are in a corrupt system. And that's not their fault--or at least that's not all of their fault.

To run for federal office, you basically have to be good at shaking down big money interests for cash, because the system requires you to raise your money from private sources. That's essentially pay-to-play built right into the system.

There are Members of Congress that have managed to raise more money from sources that don't expect legislative favors than from those interests that do expect legislative favors. The Internet is largely a fundraising base of people who don't expect specific legislative favors--which would only improve their personal livelihoods--in exchange for their donation. Progressive Internet donors want candidates who will support a progressive agenda, but they are not looking for a federal contract, if you will.

I think that there are good people in Congress who are able to fight against the hostile takeover of our government even though they are in a corrupt system.

But we have to understand that corruption is hard-wired into the system. Any system that forces candidates--at least those who are not multimillionaires willing to invest millions in their own campaigns--to raise most or all of their campaign money from private interests is one that is going to have corruption hard-wired into it. …