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 reply on “Documentary Review: The People vs. the Politicians examines our republic’s illnesses”

  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.

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