A Conversation on Money in Politics: Reaching Across the Divide to Save Our Democracy
Hal Gurian and John DeSpelder are friends on opposite sides of the political aisle who share deep concerns about the dysfunctional state of our democracy and have teamed with American Promise to do something about it. Recently, Hal and John spent a day in Washington, D.C., meeting with members of the Michigan congressional delegation and their staffs, looking for common ground that would open the way for limiting the effects of big money in American politics.
Here, we talk with John and Hal about their experience in Washington, D.C., and the need for bipartisan collaboration to fix our ailing democracy. Their work also has been highlighted in an article published by the Northern Express.
American Promise: How did you two first start talking about the dysfunction in American politics, and where do you find common ground?
John: Hal and I are a bit of an odd couple. In politics, he leans right and I lean left, a divide that parallels our careers to a certain extent. Hal has been a small business owner and I’ve been an administrator in the public sector. Yet when we disagree, we usually can appreciate the other’s point of view. That gives us a perspective that’s sadly missing from much of today’s political discourse.
Hal: John and I have been talking for a few years about how we as a country got to where we are now—we’re deeply divided, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. There are so many issues this country is facing, and the political parties appear more interested in serving their narrow interests and ignoring what the citizens of our country desire. I’m sickened to hear the biased opinions that come at us from the media on both the right and the left. The country needs to accept our differences and work toward what’s best for the country, not for special interests, whichever side of the political spectrum they’re on.
American Promise: How did we get to this state of deep division, in your view?
John: We both feel strongly that a root cause of today’s political division is that big money has taken hold of the nation’s media and political process, to the detriment of us all. The flow of outside money pouring into the political process is toxic. The tide of big money has been rising for decades, but Citizens United—the landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision ruling that money is speech, and that political spending by corporations, including nonprofits and labor unions, is protected speech under the First Amendment—knocked all of the boards from the dam and now there’s nothing holding back the billions of corporate and dark dollars flowing into American politics.
Hal: The Court said absolutely no limits could be placed on corporate free speech. We both find that to be an odd and biased decision.
John: The Supreme Court says political spending by corporations has no limits. Yet we all accept that there are limits to anybody’s right to free speech. You can’t shout “fire!” in a crowded theater. So why do corporations get to spend billions promoting their political points of view, sometimes in devious and misleading ways? It’s like corporations get to use Howitzers and A-bombs in the battle for public opinion, when ordinary citizens are left with slingshots and rocks. This is not what the country’s founders envisioned.
American Promise: How does this unlimited money in politics drive our political division?
Hal: First and foremost, the American people want the two major parties to work in a bipartisan manner. All of the big issues we face—education reform, the budget deficit, health care, infrastructure, energy, etc.—are complicated issues that can only be solved by compromise and reaching across the aisle.
John: I agree. There aren’t any significant issues that can be solved by only one party. Each side has to talk with the other, examine their own positions, and find common ground. I’ve been criticized by some friends who think it’s a mistake to talk with the other side, and that I’m being played when I talk with a Republican. I understand why there is a lot of mistrust these days, but I think the best way to deal with that is to talk and listen, together, explore the options, and take steps that build confidence and trust. My favorite quote by a conservative is Ronald Reagan’s adage, “Trust, but verify.”
Hal: Here’s an example. School reform is dear to my heart, and I believe most people agree we need to put children first. The problem is money. The teacher unions are opposed to tuition voucher programs and public and private charter schools. The teacher’s lobby spends lots of money helping Democratic candidates who will oppose those options. On the opposite end are lobbying groups from individuals and organizations that desire tuition voucher programs and charter schools. They fund the Republicans. John, if you were a Democrat in the legislature, how open would you be to compromise on non-public school funding? And if I were a Republican legislator, would I compromise to reach a deal with you? Or would the money from the two opposing lobbies—which we will both rely on for re-election—pressure both of us to not compromise? Money usually wins.
John: Right. That example makes it easy to see how money on both sides pushes out the will to compromise. And in many cases, the influx of money is so lopsided that one point of view dominates the political landscape—and we don’t know who is paying for it or why. Look at the lobbying money spent in Washington. According to OpenSecrets.org, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent over $1.5 billion on lobbying between 1998 and 2019, outspending the next three largest spenders combined, the National Association of Realtors, the American Medical Association, and the American Hospital Association. The Chamber is a tax-exempt corporation that discloses none of its sources of funding. This is dark money, the sources of which aren’t even disclosed to the public, much less is their spending limited in any way.
Hal: According to American Promise founder Jeff Clements in his book Corporations Are Not People, more money was spent by fewer donors in the 2012 election than ever before in history—as much as $10 billion in the federal election. Dark money from corporations, billionaires, and unions was run through secretive “social welfare” nonprofit corporations acting as partisan political operatives, foreign money was run through corporate subsidies and trade associations, Super PACs, and corporations.
A few dozen donors contributed 60% of the Super PAC money, and almost all of the Super PAC money came from just 3,318 donors. That is 0.0011% of the American population. These few people are out to protect their interests and not the interests of the American people.
American Promise: What can Americans do about this? Can you share a bit about your experience meeting with your representatives in Washington, D.C., as part of the National Citizen Leadership Conference Citizen Lobby Day?
Hal: The examples we’ve been talking about are why we are on the same side on the issue of limiting corporate money in politics. I feel good about the day we spent in Washington talking with members of the Michigan congressional delegation. Our meetings with the Republicans were especially worthwhile. So far only one Republican in the House has signed on to HJR 2, the bill that would propose the 28th Amendment to allow regulation of corporate and union spending on elections.
John: It was a good day. We talked with one centrist Republican and a couple of conservatives, with some promising results. We both know Republicans aren’t likely to sign on to HJR 2 anytime soon because it is so widely supported by Democrats, but we talked with them about some concerns that we all share, such as how outside money influences elections, and we found some real interest in looking at ways to fix that.
Hal: Thanks for being willing to work with me on this issue. It’s a fundamental problem for our county and it needs to be fixed. I enjoyed talking with you today.
John: My pleasure, Hal. This is an important task we’ve undertaken. Thanks to you for the work you’re doing to help Republicans see that the country needs the 28th Amendment.
American Promise: For more information about American Promise and its drive to organize Americans to win the 28th Amendment to the Constitution and restore American democracy in which We the People—not big money, not corporations, not unions, not special interests—govern ourselves, go to AmericanPromise.net.