"Uprising" is a history-flavored word. It reminds us of elementary school book reports on the Revolutionary War and bold passages from the Declaration of Independence insisting "that whenever any form of government becomes destructive...it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it." But as I found over a year of reporting for my new book, The Uprising
, these mass insurrections are not just phenomena of the past. Indeed, America is in the throes of a powerful new uprising right now.
This uprising is happening on both the Right and the Left. Like most revolts, it is rooted in a backlash to an Establishment widely seen as corrupt and morally decayed. This uprising has more picket signs and protests than pitchforks and pistols (though I certainly saw some of those down at the Mexican border when reporting on the Minutemen). It is a social phenomenon that is impacting all aspects of public life ? our pop culture, our media, and most significantly, our upcoming national elections. It could take our country in a very different direction ? perhaps positive (think universal health care, an end to the Iraq War, new trade policies), perhaps frighteningly negative (think immigrant bashing and a war with Iran).
Though today's uprising has been going on since the two major explosions of the last decade ? 9/11 and the Enron disaster ? polls indicate that it is now intensifying in ways not seen before. Surveys reveal that the public despises its current president, and more importantly, that America is suffering a crisis of confidence in government as an institution. As Scripps Howard's 2006 poll found, "anger against the federal government is at record levels" and "widespread resentment and alienation toward the national government appears to be fueling a growing acceptance of conspiracy theories" ? most prominent being the one suggesting our leaders helped plot the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The political topography resembles that of the last major uprising in our history ? the one that took place in the late 1970s. America then as today faced the same crises that have catalyzed uprisings since colonists tossed tea over the sides of boats in Boston harbor: among others, an energy emergency, a national security quagmire, a recession, a financial meltdown, and an attack on democracy.
In the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan embraced the conservative revolt that grew in response to these factors, using it to vault himself into the White House and subsequently transform that right-wing uprising into a fully operational conservative movement. Over the next two decades, this conservative movement changed America domestically (tax cuts and social service cuts), internationally (massive increase in the military budget), and politically (wholly changed electoral map).
This same pace of change could be upon us again today ? though one key indicator suggests the specific kind of change could be different. According to Gallup's biannual survey of attitudes toward social institutions, Americans' disgust with government resembles that of the late 1970s ? but the variation between then and now is the antipathy toward Corporate America. Whereas in 1979 one in three Americans told Gallup's pollsters they had confidence in big business, today a little less than one in five express the same confidence. In 1979, almost two out of three citizens said they had faith in banks. Today, only two out of five say the same thing.
The trend bodes well for progressives. Conservatives' close affiliation with big business puts them at a disadvantage in the Left-versus-Right competition to harness the current uprising. In my book, you will certainly read about conservative organizations and icons like the Minutemen and Lou Dobbs who are trying to break that affiliation apart. But you will also read about the Working Families Party, religious shareholder activists, state legislators, and union organizers ? all progressive forces making real gains far away from the national media spotlight.
Of course, today's uprising could be squelched completely, with neither the Right nor the Left capitalizing on it. Many institutions inside our government and our political parties exist specifically to crush populist, mass-based revolts. For example, my book explores how the United States Senate was set up by the founding fathers as a "permanent barrier" (that is Alexander Hamilton's exact description) against the popular will. That barrier allows 41 senators to filibuster any bill. You may recall that 41 senators from the smallest states represent just 11 percent of the total population, meaning just 11 percent of the country has the congressional power to stop anything the other 89 percent of us want.
There are also the much-talked-about "superdelegates" inside the Democratic Party ? the group of party officials who control roughly 40 percent of the total delegates needed for a candidate to secure the presidential nomination. My book traces the little-explored history of how the superdelegate system was established specifically to prevent a candidate from obtaining the party's nomination solely based on the support of the masses.
This says nothing of "Permanent Washington" ? the entrenched group of political consultants, lobbyists, and pundits who thrive in our nation's capital, regardless of the outcome of any given election. Thanks to our lax campaign finance system, this cabal is collectively paid billions of dollars a year to protect, advocate for, and propagandize on behalf of the status quo.
These obstructions are compounded by a media that portrays elections as the only venue for political participation. We are led to believe that candidates and political parties are themselves social movements ? rather than one of many vehicles for them.
In short, the obstacles to creating a new social movement are real. But then again, the need for a social movement is more pressing than ever.
As the housing market collapses, the economic slowdown punishes the middle class, and climate change threatens the globe, the future is cloudy. Maybe for the first time in our history, the American psyche is contemplating a country where the next generation has it worse than the current generation, a place where living standards are declining rather than improving ? even as corporate profits increase and CEOs make more and more money.
It is this clash between the Establishment and today's uprising that will determine whether a movement emerges and whether America's course changes in the coming decades. My book is your guided tour of the angst, organizing, protests, and tactics that are fueling this ferment on both the Right and Left. This book is all investigative, narrative reporting from the front lines. When you read it, you may be surprised at just how much power you can wield in this epic conflict. You may, in fact, be moved join today's uprising yourself. And if you are, you can rest assured you will be honoring the most important tenet of democracy: the one that says the people ? not the elites ? get to choose the nation's path.