Is there anything better than Nancy Pelosi tearing up the text of President Trump’s State of the Union speech as he basked in the golden shower of applause from Republicans on Tuesday night?
At the moment, no.
But Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith brought some good news to San Miguel de Allende on Tuesday night: All is not lost.
In a brief speech and documentary presentation titled “Reforming our Ailing Political System,” Smith said to look to the hinterlands, to the grassroots, at the state level, to see where real reform is going on.
And after three years of crisscrossing the United States, Smith reports that a real revolution is going on — and it is transcending political parties and racial and economic divides. And it is being overlooked by most of America’s major media outlets.
“The national media in Washington is not paying attention to the rest of the country,” he said. “There is no way in the world that you can cover a country when you are sitting in its capital.”
A former New York Times reporter, Smith was with John Lewis when the Civil Rights revolution began in the 1960s and he was with Martin Luther King in Birmingham and covered the VietNam protests.
“During the last two to three years,” says Smith, “I have met people all across the United States who have the same kind of idealism, passion, and commitment as I witnessed during the Civil Rights era.”
He calls 2018 the “most productive year for working on fixing our electoral system since the 1960s.”
During the i3 presentation at the La Casona Event Center, the PBS and FRONTLINE documentary producer unveiled his newest film, titled “The Democracy Rebellion: A Reporter’s Notebook,” which describes real change going on at the state level across the country on such issues as voter rights, campaign financing, dark money, and economic inequality.
“The states are where the action is on reform,” he exclaimed.
Smith has a website called “Let’s reclaim the American Dream” which tracks grassroots reform efforts across the U.S.A. and offers tips on how to get involved in your state and community. It offers “tools” for civic actions, progress reports on reforms, and profiles on key issues. Check it out here.
Smith’s documentary “The Democracy Rebellion” rolled out on some PBS stations in early January and currently is making its way across the country. It is also available on YouTube.
And if right now you are obsessing over the Iowa caucus debacle, Trump’s State of the Union speech, and the Senate’s sham exoneration of Trump on Wednesday — this film is the shot in the arm you need.
And the call to arms that we all need.
Smith and his crew travel to about a half-dozen states and look at success stories where grassroots action turned corrupt and corrupted government policies around.
Smith starts in Washington State and California where campaign contribution reforms are trying to offset the corrosive effects of Citizens United — the Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates to corporate money into politics.
How big a problem is it?
Before Citizens United, corporations accounted for $8 million in campaign contributions nationally. In 2016, the figure soared to $1.4 billion.
Money buys power and influence. Money is what turns democracies into oligarchies.
And in Washington State, 67 percent of voters rejected Citizens United and approved legislation that would rein in political nonprofits and dark (anonymous) money.
Actually, the term “dark money” seems more and more to be a synonym for the oil-rich Koch Brothers’ money. The billionaires — now deceased by one — seem to have dirty prints over an awful lot of the money that finds its way into politicians’ pockets.
California actually traced millions of dollars from front groups back to the Koches who let other shady groups launder their millions through a series of their benign-sounding think tanks and nonprofit dummy accounts.
The state, which already has some of the toughest full-disclosure laws on the books, was able to close a lot of loopholes once the Koch’s dirty laundry was aired.
Even red states, like South Dakota, have been able to rally citizens across the political spectrum to reform campaign contributions. Even though more than half the state’s voters approved reform legislation, the legislature hit back with vetoes and legislation to make it harder to create grassroots reform movements.
In Connecticut, citizens succeeded in creating public funding for state campaigns. The result is more blacks, Latinos, and women being elected to the state Legislature — including economically disadvantaged citizens who otherwise could never have raised the money to compete against lobbyists and special interest-funded candidates.
The money for campaign funding comes from the sale of abandoned properties held by the government — not from taxpayers.
Despite various attacks from within, from lobbyists, and special interests, Connecticut’s election reforms have survived five election cycles — and it looks like they are here to stay.
In North Carolina, with virtually no evidence of voter fraud to be found, Republican politicians pressed ahead with legislation to put into place a voter ID program that was ultimately overruled by the courts as discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Against a backdrop of public outcry, the pols passed a new bill making the voter suppression gambit a constitutional amendment to take effect with the 2020 election. The arrogance energized the people and the repressive measure was ultimately blocked by a federal appeals court. At least temporarily.
In Florida, citizens went after the tortuous gerrymandering of voter districts that locked up black voters in limited districts — a practice called “bleaching.” Even with a 69 percent supermajority approving the fair district rules, politicians faked the realigning of districts.
Legal challenges uncovered massive Republican fraud in the redistricting. Essentially they kept two sets of maps — one to show judges and one to enforce actual voting districts.
After the documentary, Smith pointed out three key features that mark the success of any grassroots reform movement:
- Hang in there. People get slapped down time and again by politicians and lobbyists. Gerrymandering reform in Florida took 15 years and six attempts, he noted.
- Reform has real impact on public policy. “Hang in there. Know that there is a benefit over time,” he said.
- All successful movements are “trans-partisan,” said Smith. “To be successful, you have to reach across lines.”
While Republicans seem at the forefront of most resistance to change, Smith says both parties share blame. In Massachusetts and Illinois, it is Democrats who are responsible for gerrymandering.
Regardless, “our system will only work if we get involved,” says Smith. “We’ve got to fight for it.”
Smith’s parting words to this audience should resonate across the U.S.: “Don’t walk out tonight saying, ‘That was an interesting movie. Somebody should do something about it.
“It is time to roll up YOUR sleeves.”