NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, December 15th, 2018

Documentary Review: The People vs. the Politicians examines our republic’s illnesses

Hedrick Smith — a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning jour­nal­ist, author, and doc­u­men­tar­i­an for Front­line and PBS — was in Seat­tle last week to screen and dis­cuss his new film, “The Peo­ple vs the Politicians.”

The event was spon­sored by Fix Democ­ra­cy First and Mean­ing­ful Movies Project.

The film, recent­ly pur­chased by MSNBC but yet to be sched­uled to air, exam­ines recent cam­paigns in six states on issues such as cut­ting down on cor­rup­tion and pri­vate mon­ey in pol­i­tics, fight­ing ger­ry­man­der­ing, and pro­tect­ing vot­ing rights.

Smith pref­aced the film by explain­ing how his­to­ry is lit­tered with chal­lenges faced by civ­i­liza­tions. Usu­al­ly when a civ­i­liza­tion fails, it is due to being over­tak­en by a stronger and more pow­er­ful one. Yet in the case of two of the most pow­er­ful civ­i­liza­tions in his­to­ry, Greece and Rome, what caused them to fall was divi­sion from with­in their own soci­ety, a “schism of the body politic.”

Smith not­ed that despite the seri­ous divi­sions in our soci­ety, there is con­sen­sus that our democ­ra­cy is not work­ing as it should. We have to safe­guard our democ­ra­cy, he said; it is not some­thing that can or should be tak­en for grant­ed. But he has hope, and is a “great believ­er in our resilience and our spir­it of civic rebellion.”

“The Peo­ple vs the Politi­cians” high­lights some of the move­ments aimed at strength­en­ing our democ­ra­cy. Fea­tured states and caus­es include North Car­oli­na and the peo­ple’s rebel­lion there against vot­er ID laws, which dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact peo­ple of col­or and peo­ple with low­er incomes; Flori­da and the cit­i­zen-led efforts to address ger­ry­man­der­ing; and Con­necti­cut’s now decade-old sys­tem of pub­lic financ­ing for state elec­tions that has led to more diverse can­di­dates run­ning and being elect­ed and also less lob­by­ist influ­ence in the leg­isla­tive process.

Also pro­filed is South Dako­ta, which was actu­al­ly among the first states to pro­vide for cit­i­zen-spon­sored bal­lot ini­tia­tives. Due to strong Repub­lic majori­ties in both branch­es of the state leg­is­la­ture (thanks in part to par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing), peo­ple are turn­ing to bal­lot mea­sures to accom­plish pol­i­cy changes.

In 2016, an anti-cor­rup­tion ini­tia­tive, which includ­ed poli­cies like lim­it­ing cam­paign dona­tions and cre­at­ing democ­ra­cy vouch­ers, passed with 52% of the vote, despite oppo­si­tion fund­ed by the Koch brothers.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the Repub­li­can-dom­i­nat­ed state leg­is­la­ture called a state of emer­gency to con­vene a vote and over­turned the initiative.

Despite set­backs like a this, activists con­tin­ue to fight for less cor­rup­tion and a more rep­re­sen­ta­tive state gov­ern­ment in a state where, despite Repub­li­can majori­ties in the leg­is­la­ture, only 47% of reg­is­tered vot­ers are Republican.

The film shifts its focus to Cal­i­for­nia and the Gold­en State’s laws requir­ing finan­cial dis­clo­sure of cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions. These strong laws led to the state dis­cov­er­ing some ille­gal dona­tions and col­lu­sion between Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­cans and out of state donors and orga­ni­za­tions, con­nect­ed to the Koch broth­ers, that were essen­tial­ly laun­der­ing mon­ey through a series of shell nonprofits.

Cal­i­for­nia was able to take action against this behav­ior because of its strong laws.

The film then spot­lights the work done here in the Pacif­ic North­west to pass Ini­tia­tive 735 in 2016. NPI’s Vice Pres­i­dent-Sec­re­tary Diane Jones served as Chair of the cam­paign dur­ing the sig­na­ture gath­er­ing phase, while found­ing NPI board­mem­ber Steve Zemke direct­ed the field operations.

I‑735 is the only ini­tia­tive in recent years to have qual­i­fied with pri­mar­i­ly vol­un­teer labor. The mea­sure, which passed with 62.8% of the vote, put Wash­ing­ton State on record as opposed to a series of Supreme Court deci­sions that have inter­pret­ed mon­ey to be equiv­a­lent to speech and cor­po­ra­tions to be akin to nat­ur­al persons.

I‑735, enshrined in the Revised Code of Wash­ing­ton as Chap­ter 29A.05, asks our state’s con­gres­sion­al del­e­ga­tion to spon­sor a fed­er­al con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment to over­turn those bad Supreme Court deci­sions, includ­ing Cit­i­zens Unit­ed.

Cit­i­zens Unit­ed turned us into an oli­garchy,” says Cindy Black, cur­rent­ly with Fix Democ­ra­cy First and fea­tured in the film in her role with the I‑735 campaign.

Thir­ty-eight states need to go on record to com­pel Con­gress to act.

So far nine­teen, half of the num­ber need­ed, have done so.

The film ends on an encour­ag­ing note, point­ing out that “grass­roots civic action can revi­tal­ize democ­ra­cy.” (The results of the 2018 midterms also demon­strate this.)

Before start­ing to take ques­tions from the audi­ence, Smith point­ed out that the Flori­da ger­ry­man­der­ing reform fea­tured in the film took six attempts to pass, and then it took five years after that to get a court order to actu­al­ly get the maps redone, so it’s impor­tant to be per­sis­tent and not give up!

Smith took about a dozen ques­tions from the audi­ence, includ­ing one about term lim­its. Smith’s response was that term lim­its don’t real­ly mat­ter if dis­tricts are ger­ry­man­dered, since the same type of can­di­date will keep get­ting elected.

Anoth­er per­son asked what he thought about ranked choice vot­ing. Smith said he thinks it does solve some prob­lems, and that it’s use will prob­a­bly grow, espe­cial­ly in city elec­tions. (NPI oppos­es adopt­ing ranked choice vot­ing because it cre­ates new prob­lems while osten­si­bly try­ing to cure the defects of first past the post; see this dis­cus­sion and com­par­i­son of vot­ing sys­tems for more infor­ma­tion.)

When some­one made a com­ment about Ama­zon dom­i­nat­ing the City of Seat­tle, Smith’s reply, to para­phrase, was, well, yeah, cor­po­ra­tions run the coun­try.

He not­ed that his most recent book, “Who Stole the Amer­i­can Dream?” is about that very top­ic: cor­po­rate influ­ence and dom­i­nance of Amer­i­can politics.

One of the final ques­tions asked was what to do about the duop­oly of the cur­rent Amer­i­can polit­i­cal sys­tem, how both par­ties use wedge issues to dis­tract peo­ple and what we can do to rise above this and cre­ate more vot­er choice.

Smith cit­ed sev­er­al pos­si­ble reforms, includ­ing increas­ing gen­uine com­pe­ti­tion in elec­tions, involv­ing more vot­ers, elim­i­nat­ing ger­ry­man­der­ing, get­ting rid of pri­ma­ry sys­tems that encour­age low turnout, and pub­lic fund­ing of campaigns.

After the for­mal Q&A, I was able to speak with Smith very briefly.

Giv­en his pro­lif­ic list of books and doc­u­men­taries, I asked if he had anoth­er project in the works yet, but he said right now he is focus­ing on get­ting “The Peo­ple vs the Politi­cians” out to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble. He’d like to encour­age civic debate and get peo­ple to talk­ing about and engag­ing around these issues.

He said that our coun­try is “in a ter­ri­ble mess right now,” so noth­ing is a high­er pri­or­i­ty right now than work­ing to improve our democ­ra­cy. Smith also has a web­site with infor­ma­tion on move­ments such as those fea­tured in the film to reclaim democ­ra­cy and the Amer­i­can Dream. In addi­tion to infor­ma­tion on issues and cam­paigns, there are tips on how to start get­ting involved yourself.

A good first step could be watch­ing “The Peo­ple vs the Politi­cians”. It can be viewed now, in its entire­ty, but split into six sep­a­rate episodes, on YouTube. As men­tioned, it has yet to be sched­uled for broad­cast on MSNBC.

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One Comment

  1. If you can help me con­tact Hedrick Smith, I am sure he would be inter­est­ed in Boul­der Col­orado’s new Char­ter Amend­ment, which I orig­i­nat­ed, which allows for ONLINE peti­tions for bal­lot ini­tia­tives, which will give much more pow­er to the peo­ple. Direct democ­ra­cy is already a big suc­cess in both Boul­der and Col­orado. It passed 71 to 29% and it is under dis­cus­sion at the state capi­tol to move to that level.

    # by Evan Ravitz :: December 15th, 2018 at 7:12 PM
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