Bill Moyers
February 14, 2014
Putting Political Corruption on Ice

BILL MOYERS:This week on Moyers & Company, television producer David Simon.

BILL MOYERS:I don’t think that you can call the American government anything other than broken at this point, and I think the break has come at the legislative level. I mean, that’s the part of the government that has been purchased.

BILL MOYERS: And the scholar and activist Lawrence Lessig leads a march across New Hampshire to clean it up.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Where in the constitution, in the design of our government, did anybody ever envision that money was going to have this amount of control in our system?

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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. There’s no way to say it nicely. The stench of corruption hangs over American politics like smog over Shanghai. Every day brings new headlines. If it’s not in Chris Christie’s New Jersey, it’s in Ray Nagin’s New Orleans, where the former mayor has been convicted for taking bribes and kickbacks.

And in our nation’s capital, the revolving door whirls like a runaway carousel, delivering one member of Congress or top staffer after another into the waiting arms of corporate mercenaries offering top dollar for services rendered; never mind the conflicts of interest. And all the while gushers of money pour into political campaigns non-stop, producing a marionette government of legalized theft.

You would think all this sleaze would be enough to turn everyone off. And it has indeed provoked dangerously widespread cynicism and apathy. But not among the two men on this broadcast. You will meet Lawrence Lessig later in the show, but first we’re back with David Simon, the former crime reporter turned television producer. He created two acclaimed series for HBO: “Treme,” about the struggle to rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans, and “The Wire,” the story of crime and punishment in the streets of Baltimore.

CLARENCE ROYCE in The Wire: Campaign runs on dollars, you know it.

BILL MOYERS: Each showed how corrupted capitalism and politics leave poor people at the mercy of a rigged system.

MAURICE LEVY in The Wire: You are amoral, are you not? You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade. You’re stealing from those who themselves are stealing the life blood of our city. You are a parasite who leeches off the culture of drugs.

OMAR LITTLE in The Wire: Just like you man.

MAURICE LEVY in The Wire: Excuse me?

OMAR LITTLE in The Wire: I got the shot gun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game though right?

BILL MOYERS: What I remember so vividly after watching that scene is that the law shrugged. That’s quite often the effect of money in politics: the system works only for those who pay to play, who have bought the rule-making machinery of government. As David Simon put it when he was here two weeks ago:

DAVID SIMON in Moyers & Company: Show 304: You can buy these guys on the cheap. And Capitol's been at it a long time and the rules have been relaxed. The Supreme Court has walked away from any sort of responsibility to maintain democracy at that level. That's the aspect of government that's broken.

BILL MOYERS: Simon talked about this last fall in a speech at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Australia. Here’s the conclusion of his message:

DAVID SIMON at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas: The last job of capitalism – having won all the battles against labor, having acquired the ultimate authority, almost the ultimate moral authority over what's a good idea or what's not, or what's valued and what's not – the last journey for capital in my country has been to buy the electoral process, the one venue for reform that remained […] And ultimately, right now, capital has effectively purchased the government.

BILL MOYERS: Your summation is grim, but true. Capital owns our politics. What do we do about it?

DAVID SIMON: I think if I could fix one thing, if I could concentrate and focus on one thing and hope that by breaking the cycle you might start to walk this nightmare back, it would be campaign finance reform. The logic of Citizens United and other decisions that are framed around that. Certainly our judicial branch has failed to value the idea of one man, one vote.

You don't count more because you run a corporation and you can heave money in favor of your political philosophy onto the process. You don't count more, you're one guy.

BILL MOYERS: Free speech, this court has said--

DAVID SIMON: Of course, of course.

BILL MOYERS: --free speech, under the first amendment corporations have the right of--

DAVID SIMON: And you know what-- right, and you know what? Everyone reacted the wrong way when they heard that decision. They all-- the chant from the left became, "Corporations are people? Corporations are not people." Well, no, actually under the law, that's the reason for corporations if you know, they are indeed given the rights of individuals, and that's why you form corporations and that's how the law treats them.

They're sociopaths as people, you know, they have to report their profit to the-- I mean, that's who they are. But you know, by definition, you know, if all you care about is your profits, to the shareholders, you know, and nothing else in human terms, you're probably a sociopath.

But okay, they get to exist as-- no, it was that speech is money, that was-- when you start equating speech with money and you see them as being comparable, money is in a fundamental regard the opposite of speech in many ways. Speech, you know, or it's a kind of speech so foul that it shouldn't be-- it shouldn't have the weight it has in our democracy.

And that's the, that to me was the nails in the coffin. If you can't fix the elections so that they actually resemble the popular will, if the combination of the monetization of the elections and gerrymandering create a bicameral legislature that doesn't in any way reflect the will of the American people, you've reached the end game for democracy. And I think we have.

BILL MOYERS: You were very clear in your Australian speech that capitalism is no blueprint for building a society, it's not the road to a just country, you say.

DAVID SIMON: Well, it's not. You know, it's a tool for building wealth. If wealth is the only measure of your society-- I'm not saying it isn't a measure, but if wealth is the only measure of society and there's no distinction on how that wealth is going to be distributed among the various classes or how that wealth is going to be put to the needs of the society or how the society's going to be protected from inevitable threat, if all of those things are not-- if how the society's infrastructure, shared infrastructure, is fashioned and whether or not it's sustainable, if all those things are not metrics and if it's just about generating mass wealth, then you know, what are we saying? What are we saying about the human condition? What are saying about our society's condition?

BILL MOYERS: And how do you tame the greed?

DAVID SIMON: You have to do it legislatively. And how do you do that when your legislative aspect has been completely purchased by the very capital that is being amassed? That's the problem, you know. There isn't a Teddy Roosevelt confronting these robber barons.

BILL MOYERS: Are you angry about this?

DAVID SIMON: Aren't you?


DAVID SIMON: I mean, listen, I have a good life. I go, you know, I--

BILL MOYERS: Same here.

DAVID SIMON: I go to the playground with my kid, I watch the game on Saturday. I'm not, like, an angry person. But I can't look at politics and be sanguine about where we're going.

BILL MOYERS: And you understand why so many people whose anger turns to resignation?

DAVID SIMON: Resignation or contempt for government as an idea. That's a luxury we don't have. It is basically either, on one side it's people who think, "I can do well on my own and screw my neighbor." And it's basically greed wrapping itself in the mantle of a legitimate ideology. Or it's just people who are not doing well, who are saying, you know, "The government's my enemy."

If democracy's going to work, the government in some sense is you and your neighbors. And if it's not, that's the fight to have. And that fight can't be had by walking away. You know, if 20 percent of the people in America end up voting in elections that they don't think matter and they're right, well, they'll be right, but you know, the democracy will die regardless.

It's like I say, it's a fight worth having even if we're going to lose. But right now I have to say, you know, they've purchased so much and so deeply, and the contempt for the idea of the popular will is so firm in the people who are rigging the game that the logical outcome, a generation from now, may be that just people pick up a brick. And I don't know what happens after people pick up-- nobody does. Nobody quite knows where it goes. Revolution's all good when it's in theory. But you know, the--

BILL MOYERS: The blood runs?

DAVID SIMON: Yeah, and first of all the right people don't always get hit by the right bricks. And second of all, you know, as they're finding in Tahrir Square now, you know, you fight for one thing and you get another.

And I'm not saying I'm looking forward to the brick, but you know, it is there at the bottom. It's, you know, if enough people opt out and enough people get angry and enough people start to find themselves deeply at the margins. And increasingly it starts to span across racial and social lines to include actual white folk-- it'll be an interesting dynamic.

BILL MOYERS: David, I don't know anyone who has made a more dire and dark conclusion.

DAVID SIMON: Oh come on, there are guys to the---

BILL MOYERS: No, no, you-- no, I don't. But at the same time you don't give up. You keep writing these stories, you keep trying to tell us through--

DAVID SIMON: Well, I like the stories are good, for me. They're stories I want to tell. You ever read Camus, the “The Myth of Sisyphus”?

BILL MOYERS: Sisyphus, yes.

DAVID SIMON: Right, well, you know, in sum, what I took from Camus was the idea that to commit to an unlikely cause or a cause that is, seems, almost certain of defeat, seems absurd. But to not commit is also absurd given the situation. And only one choice of those two offers even the remote chance at dignity. But more than that, the idea that democracy works without there being a constant fight, without us-- you know, listen, people who walk away and say I'm not going to play this game by which I might lose or which the odds are stacked against me, and want the lofty position of walking away and saying, "No more." They're going to achieve nothing except a more rapid decline in their society.

There's nowhere to go except to fight.

BILL MOYERS: David Simon, thank you very much for being with me.

DAVID SIMON: Thanks for having me.

BILL MOYERS: David Simon, it’s time you meet Lawrence Lessig. Like you, he knows that capitalism is no blueprint for democracy and he’s demonstrating the power of his convictions with boots on the ground-- snow boots.

Lessig is a well-known constitutional scholar and activist. He not only talks the talk, he’s walking the walk. Last month, through winter’s ice, sleet and snow, he led a two-week march of patriotic Americans from north to south down 185 miles of streets and roads in New Hampshire, traditionally, the site of the nation’s first presidential primary. The march was to raise awareness of the need for campaign finance reform, including HCR-10. That’s a resolution in the State Legislature to amend the U.S. Constitution and overthrow Citizens United. They're also asking all of the presidential candidates who will soon be haunting New Hampshire a big question: how are you going to end the system of corruption in Washington?

This hike’s just the beginning. More marches are planned in the state between now and 2016. This year’s began symbolically in Dixville Notch, population 12, well-known to fans of American politics as the first town in the United States to cast its presidential ballots.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: People have constantly said to me, "this feels a little crazy, to march across New Hampshire in the middle of January." I kind of feel, well, who is the crazy in this story?

We have a Congress where members spend 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money. They live in an environment, much like an elementary school, where the buzzers go off and they race from their office down to the floor of Congress to vote on issues they don’t even know what they are voting on. They stand at an empty chamber, giving speeches to nobody. It is a system that produces no progress.

So the people inside that system it seems to me are the crazy ones. So if there is crazy here and I'm crazy for this march, then crazy knows crazy.

If you think about every single important issue America has to address -- if you're on the right and you care about tax reform or addressing the issues of the deficit, on the left if you care about climate change or real health care reform -- whatever the issue is, if you look at the way our system functions right now you have to see that there will be no sensible reform given the way we fund campaigns.

GABRIEL GRANT: No one directly cares that much about campaign finance reform or the issue of money in politics because it’s not an issue that directly affects us. It’s an issue that affects us through every other issue we care about.

MALE HIKER: It’s a great day today! Oh yeah, got to wear these. Essential for any walk to save democracy.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Both sides of the political divide are embarrassed, I think, by the way in which the system functions, but they have no clear resolve or will to do anything about it. So the only way we can do something is to force them to take it seriously.

So we’re at the tip of New Hampshire. We’re going to start at the place that the New Hampshire primary will happen, and we’re about to begin a march. And the march will be two weeks, from Dixville Notch to Nashua.

New Hampshire is an incredibly sophisticated political state, mainly because presidential candidates basically live here for two years of the presidential election cycle as they try to convince New Hampshire to vote for them.

ARCHON FUNG: New Hampshire still is one of the few moments in the process of electing our president in which ordinary people sometimes can get to ask candidates real questions in an authentic and unscripted way.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: We want to create a movement of people who will make this the first issue by asking every single presidential candidate between now and January 2016 this one question: “What will you do to end the system of corruption in Washington?”

We’ve been looking for a long time to the kind of action that people had to pay attention to, they had to look at, they had to see, they had to think about. You know, we’re hopeful that if people see people trudging through the sleet and the rain and the snow in New Hampshire in January, they’ll stop and say “Why? Why would you do that? What’s the purpose? What’s the issue?” And as they think about it they’ll be reminded that they too care about this issue.

The latest poll we’ve done found 96 percent of Americans believe that the influence of money in our political system has got to be changed. There is no issue in American politics that has that unanimity of support. But at the same time 91 percent of Americans believe this issue will never be solved. Ninety one percent believe there is no way to beat this issue because the issue is so tied up with power right now that it can’t be reformed.

MARY REDWAY: Single-file please!

I’m 61 years old. It depresses me. It depresses me to think what I’m leaving my children. I’m past the point of anger. I think we all had a sense of futility until this march came through and somehow for us it seems to be a window of possibility.

NICK PENNIMAN: One of the great challenges for anyone who cares about campaign finance reform is to make it a kitchen table issue. Is to link it directly to people’s lives in a real way. To show them that the foreclosure crisis next door links back to money and politics and the power of the bank lobby. That the cost of prescription drugs links back to the pharmaceutical lobby.

MARY REDWAY: In general people support us whether they know it or not, the sense of frustration and dissatisfaction with the total dysfunction of the government and I think everybody right on agrees yes, money is one of the big problems.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: The simplest thing that money buys you in Washington -- and the thing that absolutely everybody admits it buys you -- is access.

So, you're a congressperson, you've been on the road all day, maybe giving speeches, maybe meeting people. You get home and there is a pile of messages of people you need to call, and among those people are the people who have given you $5,000 in your congressional campaign

Who are you going to call first? So, your priorities get bent in direction of the money.

When you step back and you ask, "Where in the constitution, in the design of our government, did anybody ever envision that money, independent of votes, was going to have this amount of control in our system?"

ARCHON FUNG: The word “democracy” means “people rule” but in this system it’s at least the case that money rules as much as people rule. And if that’s the case, it’s not a democracy.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Even though the framers were pretty bad about race, and they certainly didn't understand sex equality, the one thing the framers got was class. They understood the biggest risk was to create an aristocracy, and so they insisted, as Madison said, that the people meant not the rich more than the poor. Well, we've completely betrayed that commitment.

GABRIEL GRANT: And this issue fundamentally is about empowerment. It’s about feeling like ideas can move forward based on their merits instead of based on who holds the most power.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: So the incentives inside the fundraising process no longer align with the incentives of an institution that was meant to represent the people as a whole. And the only way to fix that is to change the incentives, to make it so that instead of obsessively worrying about what the tiniest fraction of the one percent care about, they are worrying about what the vast majority of Americans care about.

The solution is to change the way we fund elections by supporting small dollar-funded elections so that instead of the 1/20th of one percent, they raise money from the vast majority of Americans to spread out the funder influence, just like we spread out the vote. That would change the way we fund elections and radically change the way Congress works.

This is not a one-time struggle that we can solve and then just forget. This last election cycle saw a lot of super PAC money, but it was kind of the dry run, just getting its legs and what I fear is 2016 is going to be the year of the super PAC, where they are extremely effective in raising unbelievable amounts of money from a completely tiny, tiny, tiny set of Americans.

MALE HIKER: Hey, stand for a selfie?


MALE HIKER: I think I got one.


You know, when we decided to do this, we first didn't expect there would be more than about five or ten at the most, people who would be marching.

But as we've gone through the town or have been going down roads, the number of people who have reacted passionately and really vigorously to what we we’re doing as they see our signs or they have read about us or heard about us on television, people honking horns, putting signs in front of their house, every day there’s new people joining for the rest of the walk.

NICK PENNIMAN: It is raw human suffering to walk from Dixville Notch, New Hampshire to Nashua in January. We’ve seen that over the course of the last two weeks: sleet, snow, blizzards, sub-zero temperatures. The inevitable question-- “So what?” Well, they got picked up by every single media outlet in the state including every paper that counts. Radio, TV, and they’ve also created a dialogue beyond that.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: I see a finish line!

After this march we’re going to begin to organize meet-ups around the state where people get trained about how do you ask the question: “What will you do to end the system of corruption in Washington?”


KEVIN: Three way finish! C’mon bud! Woah!


MALE HIKER: Thank you sir!

LAWRENCE LESSIG: This is a much easier problem than some of the really hard problems that the 20th century struggled with and solved. When you think about racism or sexism or homophobia, those are not problems which you can just solve overnight. You don’t just wake up one day no longer a racist. It takes years, generations to rip that pathology out of the DNA of a society

But this is a problem of just changing incentives. If we change the incentives for fundraising, campaigns would change overnight. BILL MOYERS: Sound the alarm, because soon the Supreme Court will rule in McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission – a case that, like Citizens United, may open the floodgates to more money in politics even wider. Sad to say, there’s barely a single decision before Congress, the White House, or state and local governments that can’t be swayed by the almighty dollar.

At our website,, we’ll show you how cash has bought the vote of elected officials on every issue from the environment and taxes to food stamps and the minimum wage. And on our “Take Action” page, we’ll keep you updated on what to do about it -- how to help spread the New Hampshire rebellion to every village and town, to every precinct in this country.

That’s all at I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.

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