From media reform to money in politics, John Nichols has spent much of his career reporting on and working with reformers to fight the power wealthy individuals and corporations hold over our political system. Nichols, a correspondent for The Nation, says he draws his inspiration in this fight from studying reform movements of the 20th century — he has learned that the arc of history bends towards progress, something America has seen validated time and again.
At the recent National Conference for Media Reform in Denver, Moyers & Company’s Michael Winship spoke with Nichols about the origins of the conference and Free Press – the media reform nonprofit hosting the conference, which Nichols co-founded — and Nichols’s latest reporting on the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the conservative group that puts “model legislation” written by corporate lobbyists in the hands of state legislators.
On optimistically working for reform
“In 1910, if you woke up in some town in America and you said, ‘Let me assess our situation,’ women, more than half our society, cannot vote. We can’t elect our U.S. Senators. They are appointed in backroom deals through bribery — it’s been well-exposed. We can’t tax the rich. We don’t have an Internal Revenue Service. We don’t have a tax system in this country. Our children go to factories and work on machines where they lose their fingers. Our pregnant women work in dangerous situations. Our food and our drugs are often, you know, they cause us to get sick and die. There’s a lot of bad stuff. We don’t have social insurance of any kind. You get old and you’re stuck. And you say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty bad. I could feel very pessimistic about that.’ And then you think, ten years later, well, we passed a constitutional amendment and we said women could vote. We passed another constitutional amendment that said we can elect our US Senators, so we made our Congress actually, for the first time in the history of the country, representative — not perfectly, but a little better. We created an Internal Revenue Service; that was another constitutional amendment. And we said, you know, we could tax the rich. That cleared all the barriers that really were underpinnings for the New Deal, the Fair Deal, Great Society, Social Security — all the progress that we made, you can trace it back to some of those moves there. We also passed a whole bunch of child labor laws, food and drug laws. We started to show some more respect for women. And, you know, not a bad decade. ”
On each generation’s activist leaders
“They’re always with us. That’s the amazing thing. There’s an [activist like civil rights leader] A. Philip Randolph in every generation. And probably a bunch of them. And now A. Philip Randolph may be a transgendered woman. A. Philip Randolph may be a person with a severe disability. A. Philip Randolph may be a Dreamer, a kid who’s just arrived in this country, wanting to take part in the educational opportunities that everybody should have access to. Of course, the Dreamers, we should point out, often born here, but denied their rights.”
On Marcia Moody, a New Hampshire legislator fighting ALEC
“She read an article that Howard Dean had written that said that you could grade people’s citizenship, and you get a D if you just vote, you get a C if you volunteer a little bit on a campaign, you get a B if you’re active in organizing stuff and you get an A if you actually run. But she was a retired woman up in this small town in New Hampshire. She thought, ‘I want an A.’ And so this was in I believe September of an election year. She wasn’t on the ballot, so she went out and printed out leaflets and ran as a write-in candidate for the legislature. And she beat the Republican incumbent, and now she’s been in the legislature, I think she’s in her fourth term. And Marcia, the second she heard about ALEC, she’s like, ‘Well, this completely offends the New Hampshire sensibility. We shouldn’t have somebody outside sneaking bills in here.’ […] And she’s working with a group there that has studied all the bills that were passed in previous legislatures that might have ALEC ties, and when they bring the bills up they have these women come and testify and show the connections. […] And I want to tell you something, with all due respect. When you’ve got just a grassroots elected small town legislator who read about something and they are meticulously reversing the power of the biggest corporations in America at the local legislative level, that’s kind of amazing. And I believe that at some fundamental level, in journalism, that’s why you tell people about things.”