The People are revolting! (in the best sense of the word): A 20th Birthday Retrospective
18 min read
Time flies when you’re having fun, so those of us who merrily pull together this little newsletter each month were surprised recently when it dawned on us that–Holy Moly!–we’ve reached a milestone of populist pamphleteering: The 20th anniversary of The Lowdown.
Admittedly, that’s a brief moment in the long history of American muckraking, but what a moment 1999 to 2019 has been. Big Change has been the constant, with broad and often-wrenching transformations in work, income, technology, political power, culture, and more. For us, the overarching story of these times has been the audacious power grab by a moneyed class that advantages itself over the well being of the many. Disdaining America’s historic pursuit of a more egalitarian society, these predators have waged an increasingly intense assault on our nation’s unifying democratic values of economic fairness, social justice, and equal opportunity for all.
America’s corporate elites had been covertly preparing for this plutocratic move since the early ’70s, gradually monkey wrenching economic rules and surreptitiously rigging political systems to steadily expand their power. So by the turn of this century, they were in a position to go all out to consolidate their grip on our government–and our lives. They’ve been doing just that, with accelerating speed and recklessness, for the last two decades.
Their onslaught has been The Lowdown‘s beat from the time we first planted our populist flag. In issue #1 we wrote:
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If Paul Revere made his midnight ride in 1999, it is not an invasion of redcoats he’d warn us about, but the assault that global corporate powers are making on our liberties, economic fortunes, way of life, and sovereignty.
Ever since, month after month, we’ve taken readers behind the polished logos of corporations and their front groups and, as though we were lifting rotting logs in a forest, we’ve revealed plenty of creepy crawlies that the profiteers and their political enablers don’t want us to know about.
Equally important, we believe, have been our efforts to help people understand what we can do together to fight off oligarchy and reassert our democratic power. After all, as experience teaches, the truth doesn’t really set you free–acting on the truth is the only way to liberate our society from corporate subjugation. The good news is that people are indeed taking action. As corporate greed has grown, group after group of those being knocked down has risen up–especially in the last 10 years. This surge of grassroots power is truly a momentous political development, especially as disparate groups have begun to forge a more cohesive rebellion of democratic populism. This movement is gaining momentum across the country–and across lines that previously divided us.
Yet, mass media and the professional political powers are largely unconnected to, ignorant about, and dismissive of movement politics, so the remarkable efforts of these groups are badly underreported. The Lowdown, following the path of the pamphleteers and underground media throughout our country’s history, is an unabashed movement publication. Our work has deliberately focused not merely on progressive political sparklies, but on the grubhoe work, the struggles, and successes of ordinary activists who are the heart of the movement. Turning again to page one of our first issue in March 1999, we pledged:
The Lowdown also will help you agitate for change by giving you action contacts so we can join together to take our country back from the Big Shots and Bastards who’ve been running roughshod over us.
We’ve kept that pledge in virtually every issue since.
"Two wrongs don't make a right, but three left turns do." --Jim Hightower
This retrospective issue is meant to be a contemplation on the progressive movement itself–what it’s up against and how far it has progressed in these two decades. So let’s start at the start, in March 1999: Bill Clinton was president; corporate centrism was being passed off as progressive thinking; Newt Gingrich had jerked the GOP so far right that, in Bill Moyers’ skewering words, “The delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe to sit in the seat of power.” Meanwhile, the progressive movement was too often stuck in separate organizational fiefdoms focused on inside-Washington lobbying. Grassroots democracy activists were too often dismissed as bothersome people who don’t know how the system works, and abusive corporate power was considered an aberration, not a systemic cause of inequality.
THE BATTLE IN SEATTLE
In late 1999, some 3,000 miles from the establishment’s secure power base in Washington, DC, democratic populism erupted as a significant political force. More than 50,000 democracy rebels–from steelworkers to the Ruckus Society–came together in Seattle to confront a secretive confab of corporate and governmental elites who had gathered behind closed doors to consolidate provisions of corporate global governance implemented by the World Trade Organization. The public (and most Congress members) knew little of this arcane, Geneva-based instrument of oligarchic rule. But a coalition of activists, led by the watchdog group Public Citizen, had dug into the WTO’s nefarious schemes and rallied the great unwashed. To the shock and consternation of the elites, the protesters exposed the WTO’s anti-democratic scheme, physically took control of Seattle’s streets for the entire week–and literally shut down the meeting. The Lowdown was there, too. In the January 2000 issue we wrote:
The unique and important fact about Seattle was that this was way more than another collection of disparate groups gathering to raise a cacophony of independent issues. Everyone was totally focused on the central issue that united us: Global corporate power is out of control and attempting, through secretive anti-democratic entities like the World Trade Organization to enthrone itself as the world’s supreme decision maker.
Right to the end, our art director Debra “Sahu” Barron was hoping to design this 20th anniversary issue. Alas, she succumbed to cancer at her home in Tasmania last November–but not before producing 16-years’ worth of marvelously designed Lowdowns. Phillip Frazer–newsletter wizard, Lowdown co-founder, and Sahu’s close friend–had brought her into our family of pamphleteering agitators in 2002. She was both a natural fit and a talented source of artistic flair and order.
As Phillip notes, Sahu was a dynamic activist-spokesperson for African Americans and women’s rights–“a true progressive populist and truly a force of nature.”
Also in 2018, Lowdown co-founder, thinker, and group energizer–Susan DeMarco–slipped these earthly bonds. It was her idea to produce a newsletter centered on democratic populism, and in 1998 she, Phillip, and I met to say, “Let’s do it!” Susan’s sprightly spirit and incisive populist grasp of who’s doing what to whom in our nation’s economy and politics was for 20 years (and beyond) our guiding light.
My name is on The Lowdown‘s banner, but DeMarco, Sahu, and all of the free spirits you see listed each month in the staff box are the heart of this enterprise.
Corporate politicians, pundits, and media, joined by meek liberal leaders, denounced this unauthorized and unruly show of democracy as a mob riot by anti-trade know-nothings. In our issue, we refuted the establishment’s lies and described the mass protest, accurately, as the harbinger of new grassroots movements that would dramatically change US politics:
The fundamental question being thrust into public consciousness by the 50,000 citizens of the world who rallied in Seattle is this: Who the hell is going to be in charge–a handful of elite profiteers or We the People? This is the defining question for a whole new American politics for 2000 and beyond–a politics that neither of the Big Two political parties has a clue about, and a politics that crosses the political divide between liberal and conservative, with the potential to realign and reinvigorate the electorate.
The People felt their own power in Seattle, and it was not a sensation that would go away. But reclaiming their democratic rights was not going to be easy or quick–we were up against much more than the WTO. As The Lowdown reported, corporate power was digging in along multiple fronts.
THE CORPORATE ‘PERSON’
Where did this corporate personhood concept come from? On the surface, the notion that non-breathing, mindless, inanimate paper-based constructs created by state governments for private financial gain are “persons” is absurd. The claim that these artificial entities are entitled to greater rights and power than actual people makes a farce of the law, mocks the meaning of democracy, and enthrones corporate plutocracy. How did this bizarre concept become a constitutional dictum? In April 2003, we dug into history to find the answer:
It was a mistake! The mistake came in the writing of a “headnote” to the US Supreme Court’s 1866 decision in an obscure tax case [involving] Southern Pacific Railroad.
Railroad lawyers had pushed the court to rule that corporations have equal human rights under the 14th Amendment. But the justices specifically refused to consider that ludicrous personhood claim. So how did it creep into law? As we wrote:
A court reporter, J.C. Bancroft Davis (a former railroad official), wrote the headnote to the decision– a headnote being a summary of the case, for which reporters like Davis received a commission from the publisher of these legal documents. Davis’s lead sentence declares: “The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the clause in section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment … which forbids a state to deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
That’s it. A clerk’s personal opinion, carrying no weight of law and misinterpreting what the court said–this is the pillar on which rests today’s practically limitless assertions of corporate “rights.”
The Supremes have subsequently ruled again and again to extend corporate power over The People based on that clerk’s illegitimate interpretation. In particular, the fiction is the core rationale for the preposterous, democracy-crushing 2010 Citizens United ruling that –hocus-pocus–corrupting corporate campaign cash is “free speech.”
THE WAR ON UNIONS
We’ve constantly stressed that inequality is not a random happenstance of nature, but the result of deliberate corporate and governmental actions to rig the system for the benefit of the few. One clear, long-running example is the aggressive push by corporate interests to undermine workers’ power by disempowering and dismembering labor unions. Unions out = wages down = inequality up.
When workers dare try to redress the imbalance of power, oh, the squeals of outrage from the executive suites! In March 2009, we highlighted one boss hog’s tirade against letting employees form a union. On an hour-long conference call with other execs:
Home Depot cofounder Bernie Marcus blew a gasket, spewing outrage in all directions: “This is the demise of civilization. This is how a civilization disappears.
“As a shareholder, if I knew the CEO of the company wasn’t doing anything [to kill a law allowing unionizing] … I would sue the son of a bitch,” he foamed. “If a [CEO] has not gotten involved in this … he should be shot. They should be thrown out of their goddamn jobs.”
Bear in mind that this outburst came in the aftermath of The Great Recession of 2007-08, an economic calamity caused not by dreaded unions but by the unrestrained greed of Wall Street financiers and autocratic bosses like Marcus. The collapse deva- stated America’s working families: Ten years later, their incomes are still lower than before the crash. That’s not by accident. As we wrote in that 2009 issue:
Note also that CEOs who so loudly bemoan union wages are paying themselves in the neighborhood of $10,000 an hour, contributing to the widest income inequality seen in America since the 1920s. This gap between the rich and the rest of us now ranks as the worst in the industrialized world.
Doing his part to expand the disparity, Marcus himself had personally hauled in $4 billion when he issued his screed against employees seeking a voice and free choice.
In my early days of populist speechifying and politicking, I began advocating that bought-and-paid-for politicos should, like pro golfers and NASCAR racers, have to plaster their clothing with their corporate funders’ logos. People need to know the players, not by general phrasing like “corporations” or “conservatives,” but by their sponsoring brands. Over the years, we’ve not just named names, but also–through our superb cartoonists Brian Duffy and Matt Wuerker (who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize)–illustrated the money subverting democracy, as in Matt’s February 2001 portrait of the incoming Bush-Cheney regime.
For the past half century, the forces of corporate plutocracy have mounted a relentless push to demonize, undermine, outlaw, buy up, and otherwise eliminate “public” from the public good. Millions of us have paid the price for their putting common needs at the mercy of investor enrichment. We’ve seen freeways and bridges turned into ever-pricier tollways; public lands opened to frackers; public schools converted to exclusive private academies; and parks and wilderness areas transferred to mining combines, Big Oil, and pipeline operators.
The grab for our public resources is more extensive than most people realize, and The Lowdown covers it and join with the gutsy grassroots groups fighting back. We dug into and detailed:
The “corporate water rush” by global conglomerates to suck up control of public water systems in Atlanta, San Francisco, Jersey City, New Orleans, and dozens more places. June 2002
The surprising fact that developers, frackers, and commodity traders plunder rivers, lakes, marshes, and ocean floors for humble sand–a finite and rapidly depleting public resource. August 2017
The plan by a feisty American Postal Workers Union to counter the lies of FedEx, the Kochs, and assorted right-wing propagandists to abolish America’s most effective, most democratic, and most popular public agency: the US Postal Service. In March 2012, bucking the tide of supine media coverage, we helped expose the abolish-and-privatize lobby’s BIG lie that the USPS is broke and losing billions of dollars a year, while revealing that the Post Office had actually posted very nice, annual multimillion-dollar operating profits:
What’s going on here? Right-wing sabotage of USPS financing, that’s what. In 2006, the Bush White House and Congress whacked the post office with the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act–an incredible piece of ugliness requiring the agency to PRE-PAY $5.5 billion a year in health care benefits to cover not only current employees, but also all employees who’ll retire during the next 75 years. Yes, that includes employees who’re not yet born! No other agency and no corporation has to do this.
The Lowdown was not yet three years old when, in October 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan. That was 17 years, 2,400 American and more than 100,000 Afghan deaths ago and, still, the war rages on. In March 2003, the US invaded Iraq under the fiction that Saddam Hussein’s regime had “weapons of mass destruction.” There were no WMDs, but there was mass destruction: Nearly 600,000 Iraqis died and 37,000 Americans were killed or wounded. Meanwhile, most of us and our trigger-happy leaders have just kept living our lives in the land of shopping malls and cable TV, virtually oblivious to the mayhem we unleashed. So in September 2005, The Lowdown offered a simple fix to our leaders’ fixation on endless war:
War is life and death. …It should not be made easy for a society to undertake one. If the larger public pays no price, if our nation’s military force becomes separated from civilian involvement and responsibility, then our leaders are licensed for malicious adventurism. …[Going to war] ought to be a decision that gives the entire nation pause, that gives every person reason to tremble.
To establish democratic responsibility, we need to consider a national service program, or a lottery system, or better yet, a simple, new plan I call the “Leaders First” rule: All the politicians who support a shooting war will automatically be drafted or have one of their closest family members drafted to be first in the line of fire.
OCCUPY: THE PEOPLE FIGHT BACK
The greed that produced the 2007 Wall Street crash and a massive surge in inequality spurred a phenomenon in late 2010 that gobsmacked the arrogant, aloof establishment: a People’s rebellion. Proclaiming “Occupy Wall Street,” a group of audacious, mostly young rebels hunkered down in a free-form tent city near the New York Stock Exchange, refused to budge, and raised a weeks-long anti-corporate ruckus that drew viral media coverage and global support.
Of course, corporate apologists rushed to trivialize and demonize the Occupy movement: “Aligned with Lenin,” shrieked CNBC’s goofy Larry Kudlow (now Trump’s top economic advisor); a “carnival” of bored kids, sniffed the New York Times; “wingless, bloodsucking, and parasitic,” screeched right-wing harpy Ann Coulter, snootily branding protesters the “flea party.”
Many traditional progressives piled on, dismissing the spontaneous uprising as unfocused, unstructured, undisciplined, and therefore unimportant. But after we visited their encampment, The Lowdown sided with the rebels, and in a November 2011 piece we rallied Lowdowners to support them:
Is the movement “real”? Yes. It’s youth-driven, creative, broad-based, insistently democratic, optimistic, serious-minded, and deeply rooted in America’s most basic values. …It’s not about left-right ideologies, but top-down realities … focused squarely on the narcissistic greed of today’s financial and corporate elites who’ve turned their backs on America’s workaday majority and purchased our government wholesale through moneyed corporations that now masquerade as “persons.”…The spunk, motivation, idealism, passion, and energy of these young people (and the many older ones in the streets with them) are genuine–not the product of partisan operatives, focus groups, think tanks, rich funders, or string-pulling organizations.
By literally seizing the public square, Occupy has seized a place in the national debate, putting the issues of fairness and justice onto the political agenda. They’ve done more in a few weeks to advance the progressive cause than several years’ worth of our well-reasoned position papers have produced.
In 2009, long before the multibillionaire Koch brothers became poster boys for far-right extremism and corporate rule, Lee Fang, an indefatigable muckraker, tipped us off about the furtive duo’s intricate political network. Our February 2010 issue dug deeper still into the Kochs’ vast web of conspiring plutocrats and political manipulators:
It’s none of my business, but maybe you have Northern tissue on your toilet roll. You might also buy Brawny paper towels, Dixie paper cups, and Vanity Fair napkins … [all] owned and produced by a global conglomerate that deliberately tries to stay little known: Koch Industries … America’s second-largest privately- owned corporation. Being private means it makes very few disclosures about its finances and operating practices.
[David and Charles Koch] have used the wealth they draw from Koch Industries to fuel a network of … “charitable” foundations that have set up and financed a secretive army of political operatives dedicated to achieving the brothers’ anti-government, corporate-controlled vision for America. This stealth force includes national and state-level think tanks, Astroturf front groups, academic shills, university centers, political-training programs, fundraising clearinghouses, publications, lobbyists, and various other units useful to [their] cause.
We have revisited the Koch boys several times as they rose from 19th richest people in the world in 2010 to 6th today, with $52 billion each in personal wealth. We’ve learned that our democracy is not only up against powerful and determined corporate supremacists intent on eliminating majority rule, but that those traitorous elites are identifiable by name.
THE TRUE MEANING OF POPULISM
While tracking the impressive progress of the Latinx immigrant community, The Lowdown has also borne witness to inhumane, xenophobic policies directed at migrants and refugees–including, of course, Donald’s Folly. Sometimes, the outrages of seriously stupid policies are best met with ridicule–which we offered in our January 2008 issue about an earlier proposal to build a huuuuge wall:
“We’ve had experience here in Texas with the futility of tall border fences. Molly Ivins reported a beer-induced incident in 1983. Walling off Mexico had been proposed back then by the Reaganauts, and a test fence had been built way down in the Big Bend outpost of Terlingua. This little town also happened to be the site of a renowned chili cook-off that Molly helped judge, and it attracted a big crowd of impish, beer-drinking chiliheads. There stood the barrier, 17-foot tall and topped with barbwire. It didn’t take many beers before the first-ever ‘Terlingua Memorial Over, Under, or Through the Mexican Fence Climbing Contest’ was cooked up. Winning time: 30 seconds.”
Every topic we’ve covered in our 20 years–from Wall Street to war, GMOs to gentrification, the Kochs and Jeff Bezos to Brett Kavanaugh–is rooted in the rich egalitarian ethos and rebellious democratic spirit of American populism. From the revolution of 1776 forward, the central issue of our people’s political struggles boils down to this core populist reality: Too few people control too much of the money and power, and they use that control in a relentless effort to grab more for themselves at the expense of the rest of us.
Over the years we’ve devoted issues here and there to the history and true meaning of populism. Why? Because that fundamentally progressive concept has been perverted and wildly misapplied by a mass media too lazy or biased to get it right. In May 2009–as such hard-right extremists as Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and the Koch-funded tea-party ranters were tagged “populists”–we wrote:
First of all, populism is not a style, nor is it a synonym for “popular outrage.” It’s a historically grounded political doctrine (and movement) that supports ordinary folks in their ongoing democratic fight against the moneyed elites.
The very essence of populism is its unrelenting focus on breaking the iron grip that big corporations have on our country–including on our economy, government, media, and environment. It is unabashedly a class movement. Try to squeeze Lord Limbaugh into that philosophical suit of clothes!
Then along came Trump, and the media went gaga, deeming the most corporate, anti-worker, plutocratic president in history as populism incarnate. So, in the December 2016 issue, we championed real grassroots populism:
The fight is on! It’s time for us to double down on what we at The Lowdown see as the progressive community’s shared campaign for Populist Justice. Essentially, it’s the integrative struggle for human dignity, combining our many separate fights for justice into a powerful and righteous whole, an all-for-one/one-for-all effort against the political elites who are determined to subjugate us.
The corporate powers (and those who prosper by serving them) have long divided working people by pitting un-powerful groups against each other. So, it’s up to us to stop playing along. We now have an urgent need to organize and harmonize as one progressive family that can and will mobilize as a whole to defend and advance the interests of each and every part, rallying around respect for human dignity and the common good.
“Harmonize as one progressive family”? It’s no wonder that re-establishing democracy takes so much work! But, while we could wring our hands over the obstacles ahead or family divisions that still need to be healed, let’s instead look at how far we’ve come. In state after state, red and blue, the people have been winning issue campaigns and electing diverse and exciting new leaders to offices at every level. And these leaders–pushed by the people themselves –have championed bold ideas that are drawing still more people into our movement. We can do this. Indeed, We The People are doing this.
Oat Willie’s, a chain of Austin head shops, uses a slogan from the psychedelic ’60s: “Onward through the fog!” That could also be The Lowdown‘s motto. When we began 20 years ago, we couldn’t know the dramatic changes that lay ahead in our nation’s culture, demographics, and outlook. But we had an instinct for and faith in America’s egalitarian idealism and rebellious nature. Clinging to those fundamentals allows us to push through the swirling fog of events, issues, and personalities, staying true to our principles. And now, despite the Trumpateers and corporate supremacists doing their damnedest to impose plutocracy, we see the tireless spirit of democratic populism ascendant across the land. So even though we humans come with unspecified expiration dates, we’re pushing onward, through the fog, toward a more just and democratic America. We hope you’ll come with us. Thank you.