“I think there’s the belief that somehow the whole system in Washington is not on the level—that it’s tilted against the ordinary citizen. And the reason people have that view is because they’re right: it is tilted against the ordinary citizen and it does favor the rich.”
That is Tom Downey, a former U.S. Congressman from New York turned founder of the high-powered lobbying firm Downey McGrath Group, Inc., and one of many talking heads in Meet the Donors, a damning new documentary that just made its premiere on HBO.
The film comes courtesy of Alexandra Pelosi, the daughter of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. There is a brief showdown between Pelosi Jr. and a right-wing lobbyist who took out vicious attack ads against her mother that showed the former House Speaker as a city-destroying Godzilla-like monster. Despite the family ties, this remains a fairly nonpartisan examination of the corrupting influence of money in politics, and how the American political system is no longer a democracy but rather a plutocracy. The American public’s mounting frustration with this corrupt system has, in part, led to the rise of populist candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Late last year, The New York Times published a terrifying study on how just 158 wealthy families have provided nearly 50 percent of the funds raised for presidential candidates with their eye on the White House. They were mostly white, rich, older, and male, and hailed from the finance and energy sectors.
“Just 158 families, along with companies they own or control, contributed $176 million in the first phase of the campaign, a New York Times investigation found. Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign, most of it through channels legalized by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision five years ago.”
The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision changed the playing field, allowing both nonprofit and for-profit corporations to be treated as people, thereby prohibiting the government from regulating their political expenditures (coincidentally, this whole hullabaloo was over the right-wing nonprofit Citizens United’s desire to air a propaganda film, Hillary: The Movie, just prior to the 2008 general election). This led to the creation of super PACs, or political action committees—vessels that individuals, corporations, and other organizations can pour large sums of money into in order to influence elections, typically via attack ads. Conservative strategist Karl Rove notoriously oversaw super PACs that spent over $300 million on Republican candidates during the 2012 election year.
Meet the Donors opens with some fun historical context, explaining how money has been synonymous with politics in America since the Founding Fathers. For example, George Washington used all the funds raised during his first political campaign on booze to woo thirsty voters, while Andrew Jackson gave birth to the phrase “spoils system” for giving so many government jobs to his financial backers. It then transitions to the post-Watergate era, where the campaign finance system was specifically tweaked to avoid corruption, with general election campaigns publicly funded through taxation. This practice lasted until President Obama, who opted out of $84 million in public funds in favor of raising $778 million privately to finance his campaign. Part of the problem is that U.S. presidential elections have become a wildly costly endeavor, and this cost is on the rise. In 1996, the two major parties spent $448.9 million on the general election; in 2012, they spent $6.3 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
So, when you have an obscenely large amount of money required to run for POTUS combined with the ruling of Citizens United, it’s given us this nightmare scenario where corporations and the uber-wealthy wield disproportionate power over elections, and by extension government as a whole.
Pelosi went out to interview many of this high-powered donors who are pulling the strings in the 2016 presidential election, starting with the one ZIP Code that sees more political donations than any other in the country: 10022, or the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There, she attends a fancy fundraising dinner for Hillary Clinton thrown by Bernard Schwartz, a telecomm magnate turned hedge-funder and hardcore Democratic donor. He says he’ll personally spend approximately $1 million on this election, and regards it as “a privilege.”
“The reason why I favor Hillary Clinton is not because I agree with any of the things she says—there are some things I disagree with—but I think she has the personality to be a leader, and that’s what we need in the White House,” he says to a roomful of power brokers. When asked what he gets in return for his “investment,” Schwartz, like many of the talking heads in Pelosi’s film, claims to not exert any influence over the political decision-making process—before claiming just that.
“I don’t ask for politicians to do what I say,” he says. “I want them to hear me when I have a problem.”
We’re introduced to stock wizard Foster Friess, who donates millions to conservative Christian candidates, e.g. Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential run.
“When I was growing up in a small northern Wisconsin town, our school system, our families, our church, and our government all had the same value system, and now we are torn apart by so many different tugging values that I want to be part of the system that brings us back to the Judeo-Christian value system that made our country great,” says Friess. “I know many people dislike me because of what I donate to, but that’s OK. I don’t mean to make myself more important, but they gave Jesus a pretty rough time for all the things he talked about,” he continues, before adding, “I definitely think Jesus is a Republican. I’m just joking!”
We meet big-time donors like John Catsimaditis (CEO of Gristedes) and Bruce Charash (a cardiologist) who seem to donate purely for the thrill of photo ops and hobnobbing with presidents—or as Charash explains it, “the more you have pictures with powerful people in your office, the more powerful people think you are. People do really act differently when they think you have power.”
But more disconcerting are the big-pocketed elites who’ve managed to nab important roles in the administrations of presidential candidates they’ve helped fund, like Elizabeth Bagley, a longtime Clinton fundraiser who was appointed Ambassador to Portugal under President Bill Clinton, or Penny Pritzker, who, according to her brother J.B., became Secretary of Commerce under President Obama after serving as one of his primary fundraisers.
Brad Freeman, who helped raise “a lot of money” for George W. Bush during his 2000 presidential run, elucidates just how slimy the whole pay-for-play enterprise is.
“When President Bush won the election in 2000, many of my friends were getting ambassadorships, cabinet positions, and other very senior positions in the government. He called me and said he had something very important he’d like me to do, and I got very excited,” recalls Freeman. “I didn’t want an ambassadorship, which he knew, and as he was talking it was going through my mind in slow-motion what it could be, and I’d somehow come to the conclusion that he was gonna ask me to head the CIA, and I was very excited. He then started talking about when I was visiting at the mansion, how close I got and how I bonded to his cat, Ernie.” “He said, ‘Brad, Ernie has not been declawed, so we can’t take him to the White House. Laura and I would like you to take Ernie during my administration.”
Another eye-opening example of how big money influences politics—and contributes to the overall toxicity of present-day political campaigning—comes through in an interview with T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oilman who personally funded the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attack ads against John Kerry in 2004 that, he claims, “won the election in 2004 for Bush.”
First, Pickens says, “I never asked President Bush for one thing… I can’t think of anything he did that made me a dime,” and then moments later he’s describing how he tried to get the Natural Gas Act passed on Capitol Hill—an amendment to the Transportation Bill that would have called for diesel gas to be replaced with natural gas for heavy-duty trucks. The move pitted Pickens, with investments in natural gas, against the multibillionaire Koch brothers, who are the biggest political donors in America.
“I had against me the Koch brothers. The Koch brothers had other reasons of wanting diesel instead of natural gas,” says Pickens. “I think the Koch brothers are sincere conservative people. If it fits the bottom line, fine.” Pickens lost—an outcome he credits to the Koch brothers wielding more political influence, and donating more to various Republican candidates, than he does. “In this case, I think they had a better bidder. I think the Kochs had more influence than I did. I think they had more influence and, over time, sure, they outspent me,” he says.
On the other end of the energy spectrum—but someone with plenty at stake financially, too—is Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager and founder of NextGen, which is pushing clean energy. He pumped $74 million into the Democratic midterm elections in 2014, making him the biggest single individual donor in the country, and is currently spending millions on anti-Trump ads. But Steyer says that while he’s been transparent about the money he’s donated, most of the money that influences politics in America you won’t find on OpenSecrets, including the Koch brothers, who he stresses act with “as little transparency that they can get away with.”
“You went to the list of people who disclosed the money they gave,” he tells Pelosi, shaking his head. “The big money in politics is dark money—it’s money you can’t trace, and where it isn’t disclosed, and where it shows up in the political system anonymously.”
In other words: The problem is even worse than we imagine.