Winning Back Our Democracy, a Q&A with Hedrick Smith

Momentum for reform is building. Success depends on how many Americans take inspiration and lessons from the reform initiatives already happening across the country.

A longtime writer/editor for The New York Times and producer/correspondent for the PBS show Frontline, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith is uniquely positioned to see the ways the shifting currents of power and politics, cultural attitudes, court decisions and other disparate factors weave together to create the arc of history.

Over the past several years, Hedrick has focused his on-the-ground reporting and in-depth analysis on the pivotal trends that have eroded the American Dream over the past four decades. His recent best-selling book Who Stole the American Dream? reveals how tectonic shifts in our economics and politics have produced a new reality of hyper-concentrated wealth and power in America.

Hedrick is Executive Editor of the informational website, Reclaim the American Dream, which aims to help restore democracy, reduce inequality and rebuild the power of the people. His recent film, The People vs The Politicians, airing on MSNBC and available to view on YouTube, tells the inspiring story of six of the many successful grassroots victories being won across the nation by citizens determined to win back our representative voice in politics.

At American Promise, Hedrick is an authority and a hero, and we were honored he shared some of his time with us to discuss these issues so dear to him and to us.

Please briefly address how the issue of big money in politics ties together many of the issues highlighted in your recent film, The People vs The Politicians.

The explosion of billionaire and corporate money in political campaigns since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 has not only alarmed average voters but triggered a nationwide backlash at the grassroots level. Citizen movements are fighting back on multiple fronts—exposing dark money, passing resolutions to push Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn Citizens United and restore limits on campaign funding, and creating programs of public funding that empower small donors against the 1%.

Our documentary, The People vs The Politicians, tells half a dozen powerful stories of these grassroots rebellions winning back our democracy. You see citizen heroes in action fighting—and winning victories—to make our political system fairer, more representative and more inclusive.

Have you seen grassroots efforts surrounding issues of big money in politics have success in gaining cross-partisan support?

The most striking feature of the grassroots revolt against Citizens United is that it wins wide support all across the political spectrum—Republicans, Democrats and independents. At the grassroots level, limiting campaign funding is not a partisan issue. When the question of capping mega-money in campaigns is put to a popular vote, huge majorities vote against Citizens United. In Colorado in 2012, the vote was 74% against Citizens United. Every single one of Colorado’s 64 counties turned out a solid majority—red counties, blue counties, purple counties, all of them. Same thing happened in Montana and Washington state, and most recently in Massachusetts. No matter which party they belong to—Republican, Democratic or independent—voters across the board are demanding a lid on campaign spending.

What keys to success thread throughout all of these citizen-led initiatives?

The most effective campaigns against mega-donors and Citizens United are grassroots campaigns led by average citizens and well-staffed by volunteers. Political campaigns do cost money, but reform movements work best when their funds come from a mass of small donors.

Citizen movements to reform our political system work best when leaders of diverse coalitions agree that fixing our democracy is the gateway to addressing other people-friendly policies—when people get it that corporations, Wall Street and the super-rich 1% have captured Washington and use their influence in Congress to block these policies.

How did the divide between the political system and people’s rights to representation come to be?

The gap between voters and politicians opened up about 20 years ago with the breakdown of the legal controls over campaign funding enacted after the Watergate scandals of the 1970s, and with the collapse of public funding for presidential campaigns.

From 1976 to 1996, U.S. presidents from Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton accepted limits on campaign spending (and so did their opponents) in return for taxpayer-donated funds for their campaigns. When that model was destroyed by court decisions and skyrocketing campaign costs, it touched off the spiraling money race that now corrupts American politics. Just as in a nuclear arms race, each side claims self-defense.

Now politicians and donors are addicted to what I call MoneyPolitics. Candidates say they don’t like it but feel trapped in their own rat race. That means it is up to citizen reform movements to bring the insanity of MoneyPolitics under control and put the heat on politicians to adopt new reforms and restore the voice of the voters in our elections. (Read more about this history and the facts here.)

Do you believe people or politicians will succeed in the end? When/how/why do their successes overlap?

I believe reform movements have the makings of success, but the outcome depends on us and how hard we are prepared to fight and work to restore our democracy. We the People have awakened, and we are mobilized. In an echo of the Populist Era of the early 20th century, huge majorities of Americans now declare that our elections are rigged, our campaigns are dominated by corporate and 1% money, and our democracy is broken.

Citizen action for reform is on the move all over the country. Nineteen states and nearly 800 cities and communities have passed resolutions and taken action against the flood of money unleashed by Citizens United. In 25 states, citizen movements have mounted demonstrations, lawsuits, legislative action and won court decisions against the gerrymandering of election district lines for partisan advantage.

Momentum for reform is building, but success depends on whether more people take inspiration and lessons from the kind of reform successes portrayed in our film, The People vs The Politicians.    

Do these stories of reform success foreshadow a story of national change?

I believe courage is contagious, and that seeing grassroots civic action winning back our democracy will inspire more civic action. Reform is popping up all over the country, but the mainstream media is not covering that story well. So we decided to fill the media vacuum with our film. My hunch is that thousands, hopefully millions, of people will take heart as they watch Cindy Black and her volunteers win a popular victory against Citizens United in Washington state, or see the amazing gerrymander reform passed by Fair Vote Florida led by Ellen Freidin and her populist coalition, or witness how a citizens’ initiative in California led to the first great expose of the Koch Brothers money laundering network, or learn how pressure from an aroused public movement forced Connecticut politicians from both parties to adopt a system of public funding of campaigns that has totally transformed the politics of that state.

These are great, undersung achievements of citizen reform. They demonstrate that reform not only can be won but is being won. Now the challenge is to build on these successes and generate more momentum to save our precious democracy.