The Common Good
March-April 2000

Which Side Are You On?

by Duane Shank | March-April 2000

A surprising ally in the moment clean up politics.

Not too long ago, syndicated columnist and author Arianna Huffington was a noted figure on the political Right. She was a co-founder with Marvin Olasky of the Center for Effective Compassion and an informal adviser to Newt Gingrich. But as the "Republican revolution" increasingly bought into preserving the status quo, she has been distancing herself from those former allies. With her new book, How to Overthrow the Government, she effectively burns the bridges once and for all.

It is a book that pulls no punches—taking on the politicians of both parties, along with the pollsters and media in collusion with them. She writes that "politics in America has degenerated into a world where there’s no integrity, no principles, and no truth." The following chapters then document this degeneration with a combination of statistical information and anecdotes. Living only by the polls, cynical and manipulative fund-raising techniques, and falsified attacks on opponents have become the stock-in-trade of American politics. Our political campaigns have become a sewer, in which negative ads and scandal-mongering have replaced serious discussion of beliefs and policies.

One consequence is the deepening divisions in our society, particularly in economic status. Huffington writes: "The economic boom of the ’90s has masked a looming political crisis: a corrupt political system that auctions off public policy to the highest bidder, and leaves the overwhelming majority of Americans feeling alienated from their own government....It’s hard to escape the notion that the United States has been torn in two—divided between a moneyed elite getting rich from globalization and an increasing number of citizens left choking on the dust of Wall Street’s galloping bulls."

The result, she says, is that there are only two kinds of political leaders—those who believe that poverty and political reform are the primary moral issues we must address, and those who clearly don’t. She believes that moral principles are more important than partisan politics, and that our politics should change when our principles demand it.

HER CONCERN and advocacy for those in poverty is emblematic of a new populism that cuts across the political spectrum—the new dividing line, in the words of the old union song, is "which side are you on?" The side of poor and working people, or the bought-and-sold politicians? It is a dividing line that is creating significant new alliances, and one that shows promise of really making a difference in America. A politics that truly puts those at the bottom of the economic ladder at the top of the political agenda could change our country.

This type of a "progressive populist" engagement from an important conservative voice is the latest sign of an emerging new political movement in the country. Politics gets more interesting when the old categories break down—new alliances make new movements possible.

Around the country, more and more people are leaving the old political system, while getting more and more deeply involved in their communities. This is particularly true of younger people, whose voting participation is at an all-time low, while their volunteering is at an all-time high. Huffington notes, "Idealistic young people, who in earlier times would have found a home in political parties, are now trying to change the world directly, tackling poverty, homelessness, health care, and job training from the bottom up." It is an involved politics based on seeking the common good rather than on the electoral system. And it is a politics that can make real changes in our society.

How to Overthrow the Government

can be a useful tool in that new grassroots politics for change. It is both exposé and manifesto—presenting a powerful indictment of the current system, but also a call to action. Chapters on new voting rights of same-day registration, reforming ballot access laws, and on using the Internet to educate and organize provide helpful ideas. The involved civil society will at some point need to translate that involvement into reforming the current system. The final chapter is "a list of things you can do to help save your country"—a call to action where Huffington commends everything from demonstrations and civil disobedience to mentoring and volunteering.

And, showing that we should never lose our sense of humor, the book is written in a witty manner that makes you laugh through your outrage. She has an engaging style and a marvelous way of telling a story and turning a phrase. It’s a book with serious content, but it’s also a highly entertaining read, with many memorable one-liners.

We can take back our country from the corporate and political elites who have captured it. The information in this book will help in that struggle. A new movement for democracy and economic justice is growing in the country, and this book is a significant tool for that movement.

DUANE SHANK is executive assistant and director of outreach at Sojourners.

How to Overthrow the Government. Huffington, Ariana. HarperCollins, 01/01/2000.

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