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 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.