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Radical Middleman

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On the radio, and in books like one excoriating "corporate dominance and the theft of human rights" (Unequal Protection), Thom Hartmann can suggest a liberal flame-thrower. But the Portland, Ore.-based talker and writer, whose daily Air America show is carried on several dozen stations, by satellite and via cable, calls himself a "radical moderate." It's a philosophy he sees reflected in leaders from Jefferson to FDR and Eisenhower. And it's got appeal: In Seattle, Hartmann goes head-to-head with Rush Limbaugh and beats him in the ratings. Locally, "The Thom Hartmann Radio Program" airs noon-3 p.m. weekdays on WPTT 1360 AM. Hartmann, 55, visits the Pittsburgh area Jan. 5 to promote his new book, Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class -- And What We Can Do About It (Berrett-Koehler Publishers).

What is the radical middle?

When you do surveys or polls, you find that well over half of all Americans support things like a national health-care program, a reduction of our budget and trade deficits, walking away from these insane trade deals we've got, through NAFTA, GATT and the WTO, cleaning up the environment, voter-runoff elections or public financing of elections, the idea that elections should not be held on machines that are held by private corporations. The right of workers to unionize.

There's a whole series of issues that when you deal with any of them in a vacuum are typically referred to as liberal or left. [But] there is no real left in the United States any longer. There is the vast middle: the Americans who hold to the ideals held by liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower -- Dwight Eisenhower, who believed it was a good thing to have a top tax rate of 90 percent, that corporations should pay for at least a third of the cost of operating government, rather than the 8 or 9 percent that they're paying for now.

How's that radical?

People are getting pissed off and they're saying, "Wait a minute, we want decent jobs, we want the middle class, we want strong Social Security." I think these are the positions of mainstream America. Then there's this small, extreme right wing that has held political power in the United States, largely, since 1981, and has been systematically dismantling the structures we've built to maintain that middle class.

And so Screwed ...

The theme of Screwed is the death of the middle class in the United States. Franklin Roosevelt got it that an economy should be subservient to democracy and to society, rather than democracy being subservient to economic forces, and society being simply a collection of human resources for those who run the economy. And so he assembled a series of changes in the rules of how business is done in America, that produced the largest and strongest and most vibrant middle class and manufacturing machine that the world had ever seen.

That inspired social change?

Once people felt that they had safety and security and some economic power, they started wanting to have a say in how their nation was run. You had kids in the streets in the 1770s and in the 1970s, saying, "We're gonna change the established order." In the 1770s they were challenging King George the Third; in the 1970s they were challenging the Vietnam War.

Then there's a reaction ...

The downside of a middle class, at least from the perspective of the conservative power structure, is that people get uppity. Reagan came along and was pretty up front about it. When they asked him why he did away with free tuition at the University of California, he said, "Why should I pay the tuition of somebody who's out in the street saying things I don't agree with?"

That's the arc of the book: It talks about the two periods of the great middle classes that America has had, the consequences of them, and how conservatives have reacted to them, and systematically taken them apart.

How do we take it back?

We can get politically active, politically involved. We can speak out, whether it's writing letters to the editor or calling your local talk show or showing up at the school-board meeting or whatever. There's myriad opportunities to talk with our friends and neighbors and family members and awaken them to what's going on.

Can that really work?

Movements for social change -- whether it was the women's suffrage movement, or the abolition movement, whether it was the civil-rights movement, or the anti-war movement of the 1970s -- in every single case, those movements for social change were driven from the bottom up, not from the top down. It is never that some leader wakes up one day and says, "I've got a great idea." It's always that the people are demanding it so loudly that the representatives can no longer fail to do it.

But isn't the middle class complacent and fearful?

That's exactly what Reagan and his contemporaries in the conservative movement wanted, and that is people who are so terrified of losing their jobs and thus their health benefits or their retirement benefits, that they will not speak out, they will not be active, they will not agitate to have a union.

When [my father] died last year, his home was paid off. This generation is not increasing equity in their homes. They're increasing the debt associated with their home. They're maintaining a lifestyle that looks like my father's lifestyle. But it's one built on debt. And that's not middle class. That's the working poor.

Let's talk radio: Air America files for bankruptcy.

To argue that because Air America radio has not been financially profitable in 20 months is some sort of indication of failure -- when typically a media enterprise, or any business, for that matter, operates in the red for the first couple of years -- is nonsense.

Here in Portland, the local Air America station is a Clear Channel station. It's typically and consistently one of the top five AM stations in a very large market. If you're comparing apples to apples, the first two years of a political talk format, liberal talk radio is doing really, really well.

You'll broadcast live from WPTT on Jan. 5?

I welcome people to call in to the show and listen in. Unlike a lot of conservative talk programs, we don't filter out opposing points of view. In fact, people call who disagree with me, they go to the front of the line, not the back of the line.

Thom Hartmann speaks and signs copies of Screwed. 7 p.m. Fri., Jan. 5. Borders Monroeville, 200 Mall Boulevard. Free. 412-374-9772

Middle-classical: Thom Hartmann
  • Middle-classical: Thom Hartmann

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