BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: When you have more and more control of the media in the hands of a few of these giant billion-dollar corporations, I think you're not going to have the kind of debate and discussion and information that makes our democracy the kind of democracy it should be.
BILL MOYERS: And…
MICKEY EDWARDS: There's a reason to have political parties. But to give them the control they have over our political system is just wrong.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Sometimes we can see the universe in a grain of sand, as the old saying goes, but nowadays a graphic chart more vividly reveals the world we live in. Take a look at this statistical snapshot of the media ecology that largely determines what you and I see, read, and hear.
In 1983, 50 corporations controlled a majority of media in America. In 1990 the number had dropped to 23. In 1997, 10. And today, six.
There you have it. The fistful of multinational conglomerates that own the majority of media in America. What do we call it when a few firms dominate the market? Oligopoly. Doesn’t quite rhyme with democracy. But today, believe it or not, big media is about to get even bigger, unless the public stands up and says “No!” Here’s the story.
The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission -- the FCC, the agency of government created by Congress to protect the public’s rightful ownership of the airwaves -- is reportedly asking the other four commissioners to suspend the rule preventing a company from owning a newspaper and radio and TV stations in the same big city. Thus he would give the massive media companies free rein to devour more of the competition. The chairman is Julius Genachowski, appointed to the job by President Barack Obama. Now, the FCC tried to pull this same stunt under a Republican chairman back in the second term of George W. Bush, but at hearings held around the country an angry public fought back.
WOMAN: We told you a year ago when you came to Seattle that media consolidation is a patently bad idea. No ifs ands or buts about it. So with all due respect I ask you, what part of that didn’t you understand?
MAN: I’m a Republican and I’m a capitalist, but some areas of our private sector must be regulated. Freedom of information is too important, we must be proactive in protecting that fundamental freedom.
WOMAN #2: If the FCC is here wanting to know if Chicago’s residents are being well served, the answer is no. If local talent is being covered, the answer is no. If community issues are being treated sensitively, the answer is no. If minority groups are getting the coverage and input that they need, the answer is no. The answer is no.
WOMAN #3: If you will not stand up for we the people, then I have news for you. We the people are standing up for ourselves. This is our media, and we are taking it back.
BILL MOYERS: An estimated three million Americans wrote the FCC and Congress to protest giving big media more power, and the Senate passed a resolution against the proposal. When the FCC tried again, a federal court of appeals blocked it, demanding the Commission report on how the new rule would impact media ownership by minorities and women. Back then, Senator Barack Obama opposed the FCC’s proposal. So did Senators Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. But now, President Obama’s man at the FCC – they were friends in law school – apparently wants to do what the Republicans couldn’t do under President Bush, and to do it behind the scenes, out of sight, with no public hearings.
Several public interest groups, civil rights organizations and labor unions opposed the move, and last week, Senator Bernie Sanders and several of his colleagues called on Chairman Genachowski to hold off. Bernie Sanders is an outspoken opponent of media consolidation. He sees it as a threat to democracy. Once the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he served l6 years in the House of Representatives and was recently re-elected to his second term in the Senate. He’s the longest serving independent in the history of Congress. He was in New York earlier this week and we met for this interview.
Welcome. Good to see you again.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Good to be with you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: This is a strong letter, inspired one of your colleagues in the Senate says, by you. What's the beef?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: What the chairman of the FCC is now talking about is making a bad situation much worse by loosening up the cross-ownership rules, which means now that a media giant, one of the big companies, whether it's Murdoch's News Corp. or anyone else, will be able to own major television stations, a newspaper, and radio stations within a given community. And that means people are just not going to be hearing different points of view.
BILL MOYERS: I brought with me a story from “The New York Times” that drives home the point you're making. It begins with a dateline out of San Angelo, Texas. "Call a reporter at the CBS television station here, and it might be an anchor for the NBC station who calls back. Or it might be the news director who runs both stations’ news operations. The stations here compete for viewers, but they cooperate in gathering the news -- maintaining technically separate ownership, [and] sharing office space, news video, and even the scripts written for their nightly news anchors.”
And here's this, "The same kind of sharing takes place in dozens of other cities, from Burlington, Vermont,” your home state, “where the Fox and ABC stations sometimes share anchors, to Honolulu, where the NBC and CBS stations broadcast the same morning [news]." Is that what you're talking about?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: That's exactly what I'm talking about. I can tell you that when I was mayor of that same city, Burlington, Vermont, we used to hold press conferences. You would have four or five or six different radio stations showing up. You know, we'd be talking about the school board or the city council local issues. Now if we're lucky we'll have one radio station showing up. And that's true all over the United States of America. And the point here is not right wing or even left wing. The point is that the tendency of corporate America is not to discuss at length the real issues that impact ordinary people. If you owned a television station, for example, do you think you'd be talking about the impact that Citizens United has on the American political system, when you're receiving huge amounts of money because of Citizens United? If you are General Electric, which has been a major outsourcer of jobs to China and other countries, do you think you're going to be talking about trade policy in the United States of America or maybe nuclear power in the United States of America?
BILL MOYERS: But this puzzles me. The FCC tried to do essentially the same thing four years ago, as you know, in the last year of the Bush Administration. And the Senate went on record against it. You passed a strong resolution to say, "This far and no further." Why would President Obama's FCC chairman, try to do now what the Republicans couldn't do then?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: That is a very good question, Bill. And I don't have the answer. And it's not only that the Senate passed a strong resolution. There were public hearings. And there was the opportunity for the public to give input into this decision making process. And huge numbers of people said, "Wait a second, we do not need more media consolidation in America." Senate came on record. So why the Obama Administration is doing something that the Bush Administration failed to do is beyond my understanding. And we're going to do everything we can to prevent it from happening.
BILL MOYERS: You may remember that back in 2007, your then senatorial colleague, Barack Obama wrote a strong letter to the Republican chairman of the FCC who wanted to change the rules, just like Genachowski is doing now. And he condemned the very tactics that his own FCC chairman is employing today.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Absolutely. And we hope the president will get involved in this issue. So I don't-- to be honest with you, I don't know the internal dynamics of why what is happening is happening. I know you got a couple of Republicans on the board, who are very sympathetic to moving forward toward more consolidation. But why Genachowski is taking the position he is, I don't know. But I think it would be very helpful. And we will try to get the president to remember what he said four or five years ago.
BILL MOYERS: You said a moment ago that you recall these hearings that were held across the country. There was a lot of people, there were a lot of people attending. There was a lot of anger at those hearings. Three million of those folks wrote letters to the Senate and the FCC. There doesn't seem to be the opposition this time. What has changed?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Well, what's changed is they're moving quickly and quietly and secretly. And I think there has not been the kind of attention that we need to focus on this issue. And I think Genachowski is smart enough to know that that is not what he wants. What the Bush people learned is that when you open this up to public discussion, very few people in America think it's a good idea for fewer and fewer conglomerates to own more and more of the media, especially in a number of cities. So they're apparently trying to move this under the radar screen. And that's something we're going to try to halt.
BILL MOYERS: Are you calling for public hearings on this?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Absolutely. No, we're going to do everything that we can to involve the public in this. The idea, I mean, even, let's give credit to the Bush administration. They came up with a terrible idea, but at least I think they had about a half a dozen public meetings. They allowed the public to write into the FCC.
BILL MOYERS: And the last time the FCC tried to do this, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ordered the commission to hold up, that it should first evaluate the impact of any rule changes on the ownership by females and minority. What impact do you think this new rule would have on minority and women in the media?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Well, the truth is that right now, in terms of minorities and women, there is relatively, an embarrassing little amount of ownership. No one doubts that if you move to a situation where corporate America, the big guys, own more and more of the media, it will mean that minorities and women and those folks who don't have big bucks are going to be squeezed even further to the periphery. So it will be bad for minorities. It will be bad for women. And most significantly, it will be bad for American democracy.
BILL MOYERS: Some people argue that newspapers are failing anyway. That they're going under, losing advertising, cutting their staffs, losing their readership. And that it would be a good thing for these big, profitable corporations like GE and Murdoch's News Corporation to take them over and subsidize them, the same way Rupert Murdoch does the tabloid “New York Post” here in New York. How do you respond to that?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I think the issue that the FCC has got to worry about is not the economics of newspapers but what media means and does for the American people. And if you talk about cost effectiveness, yes, I suppose it is true that if you have one company that owns dozens of television stations and newspapers and radio stations, they could do it more, quote unquote, "cost effectively."
What's the logical conclusion of that argument? Maybe we should have one entity, maybe Rupert Murdoch should own all media in America. He can do it very, very cost effectively. Is that what we want? The FCC is not dealing with widget production. It is dealing with the issue of how we create a vibrant democracy, where people hear all points of view and can come up with the best decisions that we can as a nation.
BILL MOYERS: Would that be your response to the argument that the other side makes that the FCC is strangling, with slow regulations, America's competitiveness in the world? And that if we continue to tighten these regulations, they will not be able to find their places in the in the world market?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Bill, do you know where I heard that exact same explanation, defense? I heard it when Wall Street wanted deregulation. "We have to be competitive in the entire global economy. Let's deregulate Wall Street so we can compete internationally."
I don't believe that for a second. Look, the issue is we live in a country where millions of people really have not had the opportunity to learn about the dynamics of what goes on in American society. Major, major issues literally, get very, very little discussion. So the bottom line for the FCC has got to be, "How do we create a situation in which the American people are hearing a diverse range of ideas so that our public world has the kind of debate that it needs?"
BILL MOYERS: But what about the argument that people make that the internet, the thriving of the internet, let a billion opinions bloom diminishes the tyranny of monopoly?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Let me respond to that in two ways. A) The internet is enormously important. It is growing. But the bottom line is that most people today still get their information from television and from radio.
BILL MOYERS: Seventy-four percent, I believe--
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: There you go. So maybe-- second of all, when you go to the internet, what websites do you think people are going to? They're going to the same websites owned by “The New York Times” or CNN or Time Warner. Those are the largest websites in the country. And people are getting their information from the same folks. So yes, I think it's the internet plays an important role, but that is not a valid reason to allow for more media consolidation.
BILL MOYERS: In a practical sense, Rupert Murdoch owns “The Wall Street Journal,” the "New York Post,” which he subsidizes, $50 to $60 million a year, we read. What would it mean if he were able, under this rule, to buy the "Chicago Tribune” and the "Los Angeles Times”?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: And he owns Fox Television, of course.
BILL MOYERS: Of course.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: I think, I mean again, it's not to just pick on Murdoch. I think the idea that one person, who, in this case, happens to be a right-wing billionaire, can have that much influence in media is very dangerous for our democracy. And by the way, of course, in terms of Murdoch he owns a lot of media in Australia, in the United Kingdom. I believe he owns media in Eastern Europe.
I think this is a pretty dangerous trend. You know, the bottom line is that when you have a situation like that, it really influences not just what the American people think and feel, how they vote, but the issues that the United States Congress deal with every day. Let me give you an example, all right? Is deficit reduction a serious issue? It is. I'm in the middle of that debate right now.
But you know what is a more serious issue according to the American people? The need to create millions and millions of jobs. Now how often are you turning on TV and saying, "Hey, we're in the middle of a terrible recession. It is, we have 15 percent real unemployment or underemployment in America. We've got to create millions of jobs." That's what working people are saying, but the big money interests are saying, "Oh, we've got to cut Social Security. We've got to cut Medicare. We've got to cut Medicaid." There is no other option. So I give you that just as an example of how corporate media throws out one set of ideas, where the American people are thinking that jobs are probably more important.
BILL MOYERS: It has probably not escaped your attention that the mantra "fiscal cliff, fiscal cliff, fiscal cliff" is played out every night on the evening news and the corporate news. What does that say to you? That you'd get "fiscal cliff, fiscal cliff," but not "job crisis, job crisis, job crisis"?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: It tells me, quite frankly, that many of these people, who by the way did not have much to say about the deficit when we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and didn't pay for it, I didn't hear from any people in the media complaining about that. What it tells me is that behind the corporate drive for deficit reduction is a significant effort to try to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and other programs that working families need, not so much because of deficit reduction, because this has been the agenda of Republicans and right wingers for a very long time.
BILL MOYERS: So how do you see this fiscal debate playing out in the next couple of weeks?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: We have, those of us who say that deficit reduction is a serious issue, I believe it is. But believe very strongly that at a time when we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth, people on top doing phenomenally well, middleclass is disappearing. That most Americans agree with many of us in the Senate, who say, "Yes, we are going to ask the wealthiest people to see an increase in their tax rates. They are going to have to pay more in taxes. We have to end the absurdity of one out of four corporations in America not paying a nickel in taxes. And that we can do deficit reduction in a way that is fair, not on the backs of the elderly, the children, the sick, and the poor." That is my view. That's the view of the vast majority of the American people. Do I think that view is being reflected in the corporate media today? No, I don't think it is.
BILL MOYERS: Quickly, I have been around even longer than you in numbers of years. And I've never seen even a good program that can't be made better by careful and intelligent reform. Isn't there something to be done about Medicare that would meet the other side and say, "Yes, we're willing to make these changes because we think these changes are justified"?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: The answer is yes if the challenge was, "How do you make Medicare more efficient and save money for the taxpayers?" For example, the Veterans Administration negotiates drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry. Medicare Part D does not. We can save substantial sums of money. There are other ways that you can do it.
Frankly, I'm not quite so sure that given a choice of standing up to the drug companies to lower the cost of Medicare or simply raising the age of Medicare eligibility or cutting back on Medicare, my guess is the Republicans will stand with the drug companies and not with the needs of ordinary people.
BILL MOYERS: What I hear you saying is that whatever your major concern as a citizen, whether it's deficit reduction or Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security or the environment, global climate change, it all comes back to how we receive information. And that this issue you're addressing in this letter is at the heart of your--
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Bill, many of the viewers there are concerned about the growing gap, unequal distribution of wealth and income. They're concerned about health care, concerned about global warming, concerned about women's rights, health, and many, many other issues.
If you are concerned about those issues, you must be concerned about media and the increased concentration of ownership in the media. Because unless we get ordinary people involved in that discussion. Unless we make media relevant to the lives of ordinary people and not use it as a distraction, we are not going to resolve many of these serious crisis, global warming being one. There are scientists who will come on your show and say, "Hey, forget everything else. If we don't get a handle on global warming, there's not going to be much less of this planet in a hundred years." Do you see that often being portrayed in the corporate media? I fear not.
BILL MOYERS: But it seems unstoppable, Senator. Comcast took over NBC-Universal last year, as you know. And Sinclair Broadcasting just bought seven TV stations, bringing their total to 84 stations in 46 markets. I mean, it seems unstoppable.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Well, it's part of the trend in America, not only in media but in industry after industry, where fewer and fewer large conglomerates own those industries. It is a very dangerous trend.
BILL MOYERS: What do you want the FCC to do next?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Well, for a start, open up the process, get some public discussion, and ultimately rule against this cross-ownership type of approach.
BILL MOYERS: And what do you want ordinary citizens to do? What are you asking the people in Vermont, your home state? You run a lot of town meetings. You do a lot of hearings up there. What do you want ordinary people to do about this?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I want Vermonters and everyone else around this country is to write to the FCC now and say two things. I mean, voice your opinion, but if you think that this is a bad idea, let them know it. And second of all, tell them that under no circumstances can they pass without public input and giving the public the time to get involved in this debate. Look, it is very hard as a public official to go forward and pass the laugh test, when 99 percent of the people who are writing in say, "Hey, you're proposing a dumb idea." And when in public hearings, people are coming out in outrage. So I certainly do believe that had a significant impact.
BILL MOYERS: We covered those hearings several years ago. It was amazing the out turning, a thousand people in different cities around the country, at one hearing.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Bill, I mean, despite the lack of media coverage on this issue of media concentration, in people's guts, people know that this is a huge issue. That we can't be the democracy we want to be when so few people control what people read, see, and hear. So I think viscerally people know how important it is. And we've got to do everything we can to prevent the FCC from moving in the wrong direction.
BILL MOYERS: Senator Bernie Sanders, thank you for being with me and we’ll be after this story, in the weeks to come.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve no doubt been following the maneuvers in Washington over the country’s finances. Well, they’re heading now toward a showdown. Unless someone blinks, the collision of irresistible forces with immoveable objects will be felt around the world. President Obama says he won’t budge when it comes to ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. And as rumors mount that some Republicans may be willing to give ground on taxes, conservatives in the party are shouting, “Remember the Alamo!” and demanding their leaders in Congress yield not an inch.
Dozens of conservative activists, outraged at the prospect of compromise, have sent an open letter to Republicans in the House and Senate “to stand firm and not surrender your conservative principles.” Their hero, of course, is this man, known around town simply as Grover. No, not the Muppet, but chief enforcer of the notorious Norquist Pledge against taxes. Republican candidates for office must sign or risk defeat by right-wing candidates in primaries where a turnout of die-hard partisans can decide the outcome. Among Republican politicians, fear of Grover has been greater even than fear of God, and such fear has kept Republicans in Congress from voting to raise taxes for 22 years, all the way back to 1990.
Mickey Edwards was still in Congress then. An eight-term representative from Oklahoma, and a formidable leader among conservatives who nonetheless knew how to work with opponents to get things done. He chaired the Republican Policy Committee, was a founding trustee of the conservative Heritage Foundation, and served as national chairman of the American Conservative Union. After redistricting by Democrats cost him his seat in 1993, he taught at Harvard and Princeton, became Vice President of the Aspen Institute, and wrote this book: “Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost--And How It Can Find Its Way Back.” Now he’s out with another book, one calling for real, even radical, change: “The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans.”
Mickey Edwards, welcome.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Thanks, Bill. It's good to see you again.
BILL MOYERS: And congratulations on the book, although I can't imagine it's made you the most popular visitor to the House Republican Caucus.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Not at all. But it wouldn't make me popular in the Democratic Caucus either, you know. It's a problem with the entire system, both parties.
BILL MOYERS: Because you believe in compromise. You advocate bipartisanship. Which means, in effect, that you are a man without a party.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Basically, right. But you know, there's 310 million of us now. And we're very diverse people. You can stand up for your principles. You can stand up for what you believe in. You get as far as you can go. But then at the end, you have to compromise or you can't keep the bridges from falling down, you can't pay off your debts, you know, you can't provide the troops with-- you can't do anything unless, finally, you compromise. And we seem to have lost the ability to do that.
BILL MOYERS: Your story, more than anyone I know, epitomizes the change in our politics over the last quarter of a century. Once upon a time, you were considered by political scientists, one of the most conservative members of the Republican Party in the Congress .
MICKEY EDWARDS: Right.
BILL MOYERS: But as you yourself have said, if you were still in Congress, if you were still voting exactly the same way you did then on the issues, you'd now be considered –
MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah, one of the most liberal. Absolutely. Without changing at all. You know, with having been a conservative, staying true to those exact same beliefs, voting the same way, today I would be considered one of the more liberal members. The party has completely lost its roots.
BILL MOYERS: What about being a conservative then is out of date about being a conservative now?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, one of the things, and let's use Ronald Reagan as an example. Ronald Reagan stood for principles that conservatives have long believed in. But he believed in the country. He believed in solving problems. He believed in government.
Even though he would say that in terms of the Carter Presidency, the way he saw it, you know, the government was the problem, the next sentence after in his famous remark were that, "But, you know, let's make it clear. We're not against government. This is self-government. This is America. It's us." And he believed that. Today, you see so many people in Congress who really see government as the enemy, who are unwilling to come together to do even the most basic things like pay our bills. And you can't survive that way. So, the intellectual basis of Conservatism seems to have disappeared. The idea that you would, you know, go to war or that you would create a program or whatever else, and not pay for it, was the most anti-conservative thing you could imagine.
BILL MOYERS: Are there any reasons to be against big government?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Oh, sure there are. Sure, there are. Government can be too big. It can be too expensive. It can regulate too much. Sure, it can. But at some point, you push as hard as you can, if you're a conservative, to make government smaller, to make taxes lower. But you can't get it all.
You can't win everything all in one fight, because we're a big country and a lot of different views. And you have people on the left and the right who are so full of certitude and so unwilling to budge on what they think is the only right answer, that we stop functioning as an American people working collectively to solve our problems.
BILL MOYERS: There's a very strong sentence in here, very strong passage in here about how the loyalty of anybody who comes into public service, any officeholder, should be to the Constitution, not to some outside independent private group bringing pressure to bear on the government.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Right. And that's what the political parties are. You know, they're not in the Constitution. They're private power-seeking organizations. There's a reason to have political parties. But to give them the control they have over our political system is just wrong.
BILL MOYERS: Have you become disillusioned with politics?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Oh, very much. Very much. You know, you see campaigns today that are so nasty, so uncivil, so that if you and I -- and I like you a lot, Bill—and if we were both in politics today at the same time, you know, you'd be an enemy and I'd be an enemy, and we would not be able to sit and talk together. And I would think because you don't agree with me on a particular issue, you must be a very bad person. That’s nonsense.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think's going to happen in this deadlock on the fiscal crisis?
MICKEY EDWARDS: I don't think anything can happen unless both parties back off of their complete intransigence. There has to be new revenue.
And on the other side, you've got to look at the entitlement programs, which are, in fact, despite what Dick Durbin says, they are helping to drive the deficit. You've got to see, how do you get that under control? What kinds of changes -- you know, don't eliminate those programs, but is there a way to reform them?
There has to be give on both sides. And so far, both parties are saying, you know, "Compromise means you giving up. You know, and we're going to stand firm.” You know, even the president – the president went on television and he said, "We have to work together. We have to compromise."
And he then described how the people ought to put pressure on their members of Congress to support his plan. And so-- which was not a compromising way to do it. You know, I wish I were more confident, but, you know, I don't have high hopes for the people that we have in Washington today.
BILL MOYERS: When you were in Congress, did you have to sign the pledge never to raise taxes?
MICKEY EDWARDS: The only pledge… yeah, I signed a pledge. I signed a pledge to, you know, to follow the Constitution. Bill, I thought--
BILL MOYERS: You mean your oath of office?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah! I thought that when I was in Congress my job was to decide how to vote based on three things: listening to my constituents, maybe not always agreeing with them but listening seriously to my constituents, thinking about the issues, you know, getting as much information as I could to decide what I thought was the right thing to do, and make sure that I followed the Constitution. That was it.
I wasn't supposed to be following party leaders. I wasn't supposed to be following my campaign contributors. I wasn't supposed to be, you know, signing pledges to do this or that before I even heard a bill or knew what know circumstances were going to be at the time. You know, anybody who goes to Washington having signed a pledge to do anything other than that, you know, is really undercutting, you know, the whole purpose of them being part of the government.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that's what's disquieting, Mickey. You know, Grover Norquist, who is the well-known lobbyist behind the pledge never to raise taxes, boasts that no Republican has voted to increase taxes in the last 22 years. That takes us all the way back to 1990. But those 22 years, Republicans led us into two wars without asking us to pay for them.
They called for vast expenditures to fight terrorism. They gave big tax breaks to the top and the richest Americans and said, "Don't worry, your kids will pay for them." Republicans supported huge subsidies for agribusiness and big energy companies. Democrats did, too. They passed fabulous increases in Medicare prescription benefits for the elderly. Didn't raise a penny to pay for them. They advocated policies that led to the crash of 2008 -- so did Democrats. Today, we're $16 trillion in debt. And they boasting that they haven't raised taxes in 22 years. What's that about?
MICKEY EDWARDS: It’s certainly not Conservatism. It's not rational. And it's not adult. You know, when you create a program, you make a decision. You say, "I think we should conduct this war. I think that we should expand our security apparatus at home. I think that we should provide this additional benefit." Then you pay for it.
You vote to do it. And then you say, "Here's what it's going to cost." And you pay for it. You know, Republicans may complain about the federal debt, but they're as responsible as the Democrats for the debt being as large as it is. And once you have already done that, then you have an obligation to pay it down.
You know, so the idea that what you're going to do is say-- you know, "We're not going to raise taxes, we're not going to close loopholes, we're not going to do anything” -- that means that we're not going to pay off what we've already created. I mean, that's childish. That's childish.
BILL MOYERS: That's very interesting you say that, because Grover Norquist says he came up with this scheme for the pledge against taxes when he was 12 years old. Seriously. In other words, the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower is in the grip of an ideology conceived by a pre-teenager who apparently remains to this day in a state of arrested adolescence.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, you know, the fact is, the idea that, you know, "No, I'm not ever going to do this no matter the circumstances, no matter if we're at war," whatever, it is a 12-year-old kind of thinking.
You know, it's a childish way of thinking. But you can't just blame Grover. There are members of the United States Senate and United States House who have signed those pledges. And let me say, I mean, we're talking about taxes and that's the Norquist Pledge.
You know, but supporters of other positions on immigration, a lot of different issues, when you're running for office ask you to sign a pledge, sign a pledge that you will support this, sign a pledge that you-- you know, the right thing for a member of Congress to say is, "You know the way I think. You know what my values are. I will look at the issues through that lens. You know, but, you know, the oath of office I take says that my job is to serve the country and the Constitution. And, you know, I'm not going to sign any pledges. I'm just going to take the oath of office."
BILL MOYERS: Nonetheless, for the benefit of our viewers, consider these figures. In the last Congress, the Congress presently leaving Washington, 238 representatives and 41 senators signed the Norquist Pledge. That's a total of 279. In the new incoming Congress, 219 representatives and 39 senators signed it, a total of 258. That's a little over half the Congress has taken this pledge, which means deadlock in the next three weeks is inevitable if they honor that pledge.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah. So, what they need to do is to say, "I have two pledges here, two pledges side by side. One is to Grover Norquist. One is to the Constitution of the United States. Which one am I going to honor?" And that's the choice they have to make.
And you have to be honest about the conversation. Because on the tax raising side of it, you know, the argument is, "We're going to tax the multimillionaires." But actually, the proposal is $250,000. It's not millionaires and it's not multimillionaires. And so, there's dishonesty coming from both sides and both sides digging in their heels and saying, you know, "We’re just not going to budge." And you can't operate that way.
That's why I say they should act as Americans, not Republicans and Democrats. This is not about fixing the problems of the country. It's about the elections of 2014.
BILL MOYERS: Let me play for you an interview that Norquist did with Politico's Mike Allen.
MIKE ALLEN: This president is not going to extend. He knows that he loses his leverage that way.
GROVER NORQUIST: Okay, well, the Republicans also have other leverage: continuing resolutions on spending and the debt ceiling increase. They can give him debt ceiling increases once a month. They can have him on a rather short leash, on a small, you know, "Here's your allowance, come back next month if you've behaved"--
MIKE ALLEN: Okay, okay, wait. You're proposing that the debt ceiling be increased month--
GROVER NORQUIST: Month--
MIKE ALLEN: --by month?
GROVER NORQUIST: --monthly. Monthly, if he's good. Weekly, if he's not.
BILL MOYERS: It does seem apparent that Norquist is prepared to bring the government down if he has to, if he doesn't get his way.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah, I don't know why anybody's paying any attention to him. You know, he doesn't hold any public office, he's a self-declared leader who goes around saying, you know, "This is what I want you to do." But where does he get his strength? Where does he get the force that makes people pay attention to him?
BILL MOYERS: Good question.
MICKEY EDWARDS: It's the fact that the people who are the most ideological will turn out and then even if they're a small percentage of the electorate, they will decide who can go forward. That’s the weapon he's got is, "If you don't go along, I can turn out enough people, not very many, but I can turn out enough people to beat you in a primary and end your career."
BILL MOYERS: But he also gets his strength from his money. Would it surprise you to learn that in one given period recently, two billionaire-backed groups, one associated the Koch brothers, one with Karl Rove's network of mysterious givers, these two groups donated over 60 percent of Grover Norquist's budget. I mean, isn't that what's really going on with the system, that the lobbyists chiefly presenting a more-- preventing a more equitable tax system is beholden to the plutocrats?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Money plays way too big a part in our political system today. You know, from both sides. You know, there's way too much money coming into it-- that there's no control over it, that what you have—well, let me tell you -- in my book, Bill, I probably have the most extreme position on this than anybody, because what I have proposed in terms of political campaigns, that no money should come from any source other than from individual human beings.
I would get rid of Political Action Committee money, political party money, labor union money, corporate money. You know, I would go down to small amounts that are instantly reported, all transparent. I think we have to do that, because it is this money pouring in -- what comes out at the end is not representative of what the American people want.
You know, the system gets skewed by these super influences, you know, whether it's the president PACs and the Democratic's Party PACs and the Super PACs or the Republican Party Super PACs, that's got to change.
BILL MOYERS: Well, no ideas can make it as long as we're in the grip of an undemocratic process which determines who's going to make those decisions.
MICKEY EDWARDS: One of the lines in my book is that all I'm trying to do here is put democracy back into our democracy. What our Founders did that was exceptional was they decided, "We are not going to be subjects. We're going to be citizens. So instead of the government telling us what to do, we'll tell the government what to do." And that only works if the people themselves have the power to decide who's going to be making the laws and it's not just a few, whether they're plutocrats or ideologues or whatever, who are able to skew the system.
BILL MOYERS: You said a moment ago that Ronald Reagan believed in the country. Are you suggesting that -- or was it just a slip of the tongue that maybe John Boehner and that Republican leadership, that they don't believe in the country?
MICKEY EDWARDS: No. You know, the members of Congress who I know in both parties are patriotic. They love the country. But we've created an incentive system that gets you knocked off in your primaries, you know, unless you are willing to be intransigent and to say, "I will never compromise."
You know, Richard Murdoch beat Dick Luger in Indiana by saying, "I will never compromise." You know, Bill, thank goodness he wasn't at the Constitutional Convention. We wouldn't have a country today.
BILL MOYERS: How did we incentivize obstinacy?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, one of the things that's happened is that the ideologues in both parties have really started focusing on the primaries, because we have a system, you know, 46 of the 50 states, if you lose in your party's primary, your name cannot be on the ballot in November.
After Joe Biden became vice president and Delaware had to elect a new senator, so, Mike Castle, obviously, was going to be the next senator, everybody knew that, but he lost the primary to a lady named Christine O'Donnell. So, there's a state of a million people--
BILL MOYERS: A Tea Party person--
MICKEY EDWARDS: In Delaware, yeah. Yeah. But with a million people in Delaware, only 30,000 voted for her in the primary. And that was enough to keep Mike Castle off the ballot. And the million people in Delaware couldn't choose him. And, you know, and that's true in almost every state.
So, that's how it's happened. The ideologues have focused on using the party primaries to elect people who are not representative, maybe not even representative of their own party. But the other candidates now cannot be on the ballot in November.
You know, the Congress has most of the major power in this country about war, about taxes, about spending. You know, so, when you narrow the choices that the American people have as to who's going to serve in Congress, in the House or Senate, you're really undermining the whole democratic system.
And I don't know if you noticed this example just the other day. Bill Bolling, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, decided not to run, you know, for governor, because he knew that he could not win in a primary against the more conservative attorney general.
So, it really happens. Utah, when Robert Bennett was running for reelection, two thousand of the people who voted in a Republican convention in a state of three million people were able to keep him off the ballot in November. You know, there's something really seriously wrong with that.
BILL MOYERS: So, what's the simplest explanation, the clearest explanation for why the ideologues, the folks who don't want to compromise, the hardliners, can control the primary process? What's the reason behind that?
MICKEY EDWARDS: Part of it is the fact that American citizens don't get as involved as they should in voting early. The American people are exposed, and especially those who are most ideologically motivated to extreme positions, certitude. There have been a lot of things written about the fact that the American people now tend to talk only to people who think the way they do, you know, and not open to a civil conversation with people on a different side.
So, all of these things have conspired that the people who are the most hardline, most partisan, dominate the party conventions, dominate the primaries. But those primaries and conventions are not just endorsers. The problem is, they now have the ability to keep other people off the ballot. They should not have that power.
BILL MOYERS: So, how do you open the choices to people who didn't win in the primary?
MICKEY EDWARDS: In 2006, the people in Washington State finally had, you know, over 40 percent of Americans now call themselves Independents. People are fleeing from the parties. And in Washington State they said, "You know, we're tired of this system." And they passed an open primary, which is, it's not a crossover primary, it's a truly open primary where every candidate who's a qualified candidate is on the same ballot, regardless of party, and every single registered voter in that state could vote among all those candidates.
It's like having a general election with a runoff if you don't get over 50 percent. That was 2006. California did the same thing in 2010. And both states got rid of partisan control of gerrymandering, drawing district lines.
BILL MOYERS: I remember when they when they redrew your district. Suddenly you had a big L.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Big upside-down L, right.
BILL MOYERS: Upside-down L that went all the way from Oklahoma City up to the Kansas border.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah, and then halfway across to Arkansas. Yeah. As you know, Bill, I represented Oklahoma City. I’m a city guy. You know, to me, food comes from a grocery store and not, you know. I don't know anything about farming. But because I was a Republican that won in a heavily Democratic district, when we had a state legislature that was dominated by the Democrats, you know, they redrew my district so that I was now representing wheat farmers and cattle ranchers and small town merchants. And I thought, "Well, look what they did to me." But they didn't. They did it to those people who were entitled to be represented by somebody who could speak for them. You have to take away the ability of the parties to draw district lines in a way that take away representation from the citizens.
BILL MOYERS: You say take away the parties' control over redistricting.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Thirteen states have now done that. Thirteen states have said, "We will put together non-partisan independent redistricting commissions."
BILL MOYERS: How?
MICKEY EDWARDS: The independent commissions are the only way to do it. Now, every state does it differently. So, what you have--
BILL MOYERS: Iowa does a good job of this.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Iowa does a very good job of it. And other states do, too. But you've got to have the commission be large enough and balance it with people from enough views that what comes out at the end is hopefully going to be fair based on population, based on interests, as opposed to -- and competitive elections -- as opposed to allowing a party draw the lines just to help them get more seats.
You know, there's kind of a revolution starting, Bill, against the concept of party control of our choices. So that now we look at what's happening in Washington, and, you know, one day it's Nancy Pelosi saying, "We're not going to compromise," the next day it's John Boehner saying it.
MICKEY EDWARDS: And then Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate says, you know, what my goal is to make Barack Obama a one-term president.
They're supposed to be leaders of the legislative branch of the government, not party hacks. And we have a system now, you know, that is all about looking toward the next election, how we do that.
BILL MOYERS: This is a strong indictment of the polarization of the two parties.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: But isn't the country also very polarized?
MICKEY EDWARDS: The country is very polarized in some senses. But you also find the American people saying, "Solve the problem. Don't go over a fiscal cliff." Or, you know, "Pay our bills," or, "Do something about the budget." Now, I think even though the people tend to not be open to a lot of different views, they want the people they elect to make government work.
BILL MOYERS: So, we have created a political system that rewards intransigence.
MICKEY EDWARDS: We've created a system that says, "We reward incivility. We reward refusal to compromise. We punish people who compromise and are civil and get along well with the people on the other side of the aisle." So, why are we surprised that that's what we get in everything in life? You get what you reward. And you don't get what you punish. And that's what we've done to our political system.
BILL MOYERS: What's in store for the fate of a democracy that cannot be flexible enough to compromise between its strongly-held prejudices?
MICKEY EDWARDS: You know, if you have hardening of the arteries, it'll kill you as a person and it'll kill you as a country. What you have to do is to be able to maintain the health of the democracy by saying, "It depends on people of different perspectives to come together, have intellectual discussions, you know, listen to each other, tolerate other ideas, not be so full of how right they are. You know, and then say, 'Where can we come together?'"
You know, that's what's required. And the more we are locked into, you know, "This is the only right answer," or, "This is their only right--" certitude will kill this country.
BILL MOYERS: Why haven't you given up?
MICKEY EDWARDS: I will tell you, people ask me, "So, it sounds like you're a pessimist." I said, "No, I'm optimistic. I think the revolution's begun. I look at Washington. I look at California. I look at the 40 percent of the people who call themselves Independents. I look at the constant attacks by people against this nasty partisanship. You know, so I think Congress got down to 13 percent approval, which only proves there's 13 percent who are not paying attention."
If everybody was just happy with what's happening, I would say, "We have really lost, you know, control of our system." But the thing that does concern me, Bill, is to have this kind of a system of democracy, you need to have a citizenship, you know, that is capable of operating in this kind of a democracy. So, we need to do a better job of teaching civics. We need to do a better job of teaching critical thinking. You know, we need to do-- we need to have more citizens who engage, show up in the primaries, show up in the elections. We can start by fixing the political system.
BILL MOYERS: I would say that one way to start is to read, "The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans." Mickey Edwards, thank you very much for being with me.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
BILL MOYERS: Don’t you wonder just who is this Grover Norquist who has such a maniacal hold on the Republican Party? Mickey Edwards isn’t the only conservative who would like to see the party free itself from his grip. Writing in the "Financial Times" last week, the conservative journalist Christopher Caldwell describes the Norquist Pledge as a “partisan document,” “a ratchet driving taxes down to unsustainable levels,” and it “symbolizes a political system short on legitimacy.” Norquist claims the pledge is something politicians make to their constituents, not to him. But Caldwell wonders “who authorized him to collect politicians’ signatures on their constituents’ behalf.”
Even this misses the main point. Norquist’s efforts – keep taxes low for his donor base, billionaires like the Koch brothers and the plutocrats secretly clustered around Norquist’s comrade, Karl Rove. This past election, Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform, spent nearly $16 million to support his favored candidates; that’s according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Where did that money come from, and what did it buy? Back in the 1990’s it was the tobacco industry backing Norquist’s fight against cigarette taxes; now it’s the pharmaceutical companies, among others. Not long ago, this same Grover Norquist was using his organization to launder money for the notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff. How about that for tax reform!
Check it out yourself in the documentary "Capitol Crimes" on our website BillMoyers.com. You’ll see the story of how the man who has the Republican Party under his thumb came to Washington to start a revolution and wound up running a racket. Now he’s the proxy for the powerful interest groups that finance him. So, not only does the Norquist Pledge symbolize a "political system short on legitimacy," as Christopher Caldwell wrote, it isn’t even about principle or ideology. Conservatism my foot, it’s all about the money.
Coming up on Moyers and Company, poet James Autry on living a life of gratitude, no matter what.
JAMES AUTRY: The world is very much with us. And I’m no Pollyanna, but I choose gratitude as an interior journey, an interior practice that sort of this one that, if I can choose to be grateful for my life, love the life I have in the midst of all this, then I can be grateful for other things.
BILL MOYERS: And at our website, BillMoyers.com, you can find out more about fighting back against this current FCC attempt to let big media take over even more of what we watch and read. Our Take Action page will show you how.
Also, take time to look at our Group Think section, where a lively and diverse collection of contributors gather to discuss whether corporate giants should have so much control over how citizens of a democracy get their information.
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there, and I see you here, next time.