Saturday, July 6, 2019

Interview: Josh Silver of Represent.Us explains how special interests polarized politics

Editor's note: This interview was originally published in April 2017.

Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

Most Americans think that their government is corrupt.

According to a 2014 Gallup study, the number is 75 percent, a jump from 2009, when only 66 percent of Americans believed the same.

When this represents the good old days, where does the present-day stand?

Many a citizen now look back on that time before Citizens United as a golden age which must be revisited. However, I would caution anyone from growing too nostalgic. Pay-to-play corruption has long been part-and-parcel of Capitol Hill.

If you have ever seen the film Amistad, you might remember that Spaniard nobleman who advised Queen Isabella II: Angel Calderon de la Barca y Belgrano.

Less than a decade before his death, he told American writer Orestes Brownson the following: "The government struck me as strictly honest, and your statesmen as remarkable for their public spirit, integrity, and incorruptibility. I was subsequently sent to Mexico; and when, recalled from that mission, I was offered my choice between Rome and Washington, such was my high opinion of the American republic, and the honesty and integrity of its government, that I chose Washington in preference to Rome, though the latter was more generally coveted.

"I have been here now for several years a close observer, and I have seen every thing change under my eyes. All my admiration for the republic and for republican government has vanished. I cannot conceive a government more corrupt than this government of yours. I see men come here worth only their salary as members of Congress, and in two or four years return home worth from a hundred thousand to two hundred thousand dollars." ,

Brownson pointed out that these words were "said in 1852, when corruption was very little in comparison with what it has become."

This last sentence was written in 1873.

In many respects, little has changed in Washington, DC throughout the ages. Those of us who wish to see cleaner, more responsive federal politics would be wise to consider Belgrano's words very carefully.

The entire system is flawed. Checks and balances might separate the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of government, but they cannot produce an entity which functions as -- supposedly -- intended: "Of, by, and for the people."

Despite such a daunting scenario, a vocal band of activists has not surrendered hope -- quite the opposite, in fact. They are pushing stronger than ever before so a new day might dawn on American polity; even though this amounts to pushing a giant boulder up the highest Smoky mountain.

Represent.Us is, as its website declares, gathering "together conservatives, progressives, and everyone in between to pass powerful anti-corruption laws that stop political bribery, end secret money, and fix our broken elections."

Its leader is Josh Silver, who "is a veteran election and media reform executive. He was the campaign manager for the successful 1998 Arizona Clean Elections ballot initiative, and is the cofounder and former CEO of Free Press, a leading media and technology reform advocacy organization," Represent.Us explains on-line. "Silver has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal and featured in outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek, NPR, and CBS Sunday Morning."

Silver recently spoke with me about many issues relative to American electioneering. Some of our conversation is included below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: This is without a doubt the most polarized era in post-Civil War American politics, and that discord seems likely to intensify over coming years.  In your opinion, What role have special interests played in creating our state of affairs?

Josh Silver: The undue influence of special interests has greatly exacerbated political polarization. Political campaigns have become so costly that candidates are dependent on millionaires, billionaires, and deep pocketed lobbyists. Most of those donors do not give out of love of country. They give because they want very specific policies advanced or blocked, and they tend to be more extreme in their political views than the average members of their parties. When politicians take their money, they know that they must not compromise on those policies. If they do, at best they will lose funding. At worst, their mega-donors will fund their opponent in the next election. 

The other driver of polarization and gridlock is our antiquated,  “winner take all” system of elections that prevents independent and third party candidates from running and winning, and ensures the two-party duopoly. The polarization wrought by flaws in our campaign finance and election systems mask the fact that grassroots Americans progressive and conservative actually agree on many issues, including efforts to fix our corrupt political system.

Cotto: The Citizens United ruling led millions of Americans to become nervous about the influence money plays in politics. With each passing year, however, these fears seem likelier to go unassuaged as the prospect of overturning Citizens United becomes dimmer. Do you think that special interests in both major parties are to blame for this, or does responsibility fall more on one side than the other?

Silver: First, overturning Citizens United has always been a long-term fight, with hundreds of resolutions at the state and local levels reshaping the debate and pressuring the legislative and judicial branches. Second, we would be naive to think that either major political party will seriously address the undue influence of money in politics. 

The GOP is unabashedly opposed to fixing the rigged system. Democrats proclaim their support of reform, but party leaders consistently sit on their hands rather than exert the political capital required to fix the system. Bill Clinton did this for the first two years of his presidency when his party controlled Congress, and so did Barack Obama. At the end of the day, this issue breaks down less along the lines of Democrat vs. Republican or left vs. right. The real battle lines are drawn based on who has power and who doesn’t. In firmly blue states, the local GOP is known to support reform while the Democrats oppose it. In red states, the opposite is true. Thus, money in politics reform has been falsely cast as a liberal issue. It’s not.

Cotto: Nowadays, there is a near-total lack of congressional bipartisanship on big issues. Special interests played a huge role in creating this situation. Nonetheless, as less sausage on Capitol Hill is being made, how does that turn of events benefit those same interests?
Silver: While polarization is rampant, there remains strong bipartisan support for the biggest spenders in Washington. Fifty companies spent more than $716 million lobbying the federal government in 2016. The five biggest spenders, in descending order, were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the American Hospital Association and the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America. 

These lobbyists have massive control of the legislative process, and their power is demonstrated not just by what policies are passed, but which policies are never even considered. Barack Obama infamously made massive concessions to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries in the early stages of creating the Affordable Care Act. This happens on nearly every issue, where special interests -- not the public interest -- determines the range of debate in Washington and in state capitals.