How Big Money Contributions Cripple our Politics

May 3, 2019

Despite the many setbacks, consumer advocate, author, and former health insurance executive Wendell Potter says there is reason to be optimistic about our politics if we take the long view and challenge corporate power

Despite the many setbacks, consumer advocate, author, and former health insurance executive Wendell Potter says there is reason to be optimistic about our politics if we take the long view and challenge corporate power


How Big Money Contributions Cripple our Politics

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us, once again. And once again, Real News is going to be talking to Wendell Potter. You all know him from all of our work with him before. He worked with Humana for many years, was inside the corporate world, and then he had a change of heart, and wrote these books— books like Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans and Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It. His newest project is Tarbell.org, which examines the money in politics and affects millions and millions of Americans. It’s good to have a chance to talk with you here, Wendell.

WENDELL POTTER Thanks, Marc. It’s good to be here.

MARC STEINER So let me just take a step backwards to your days at Humana and your days in the corporate world. And I know that you’ve been interviewed about your change of heart and what you’ve come to, but I’m curious as you think about your life in the corporate world, and what America faces now, money in politics— how do you think America gets over this bridge, gets over this hump of money in politics as you are smack dab in the middle of it?

WENDELL POTTER I think we’ve got to somehow curb the influence of money in politics. I did work at Humana and Cigna and when I was at Cigna, one of the things that my staff did was control the political action committee giving. We doled out money to candidates that we liked and also, I worked very closely with their lobbyists. So I learned how corporations spend money to influence public opinion, public policy, and elections. And that’s one of the reasons I left my job because I viewed that we were in many cases, drifting away from our roots as a republic into one that was controlled largely by corporations and by the wealthiest in this country. That’s one of the reasons I left because I felt that I needed to tell what I learned, what I knew, and what I used to do in my old job, to have people understand just where we are as a country and what we need to do about it. So the reason I wrote The Nation on the Take [was] to help people wake up to the reality of the fact that in many cases, our democracy is just a democracy in name only.

MARC STEINER So on a personal level, the years you worked at Cigna and Humana, the people you work with— did you all ever have conversations about what exactly you were doing, having a sense that you were influencing power, what that meant, and why? Do those discussions take place, any questions? I’ve always been very curious about what the inner workings were like.

WENDELL POTTER No, you don’t hear those conversations. You just become part of a team and there’s a mentality. You’re working for an organization and there, there’s this team mentality. You are expected to be a team player and to do your part, play your role, to help the company achieve its objectives. And typically that objective, the overall objective, is to enhance shareholder value, is to reward people who are already very rich, and who are investing in your company and who own it. So that’s why I learned that we have increasingly a plutocracy in this country, but when you’re on the inside, you become very much unaware of how the rest of the country really lives. And also, the consequences of the actions, you might have some small part, and typically you do if you work for a big corporation, you have some small part. Few people are able to pull back and see the forest for the trees. They’re just completely self-focused. They are usually paid very well, get bonuses, and stock options. Your ability to help the team meet its objectives, determine whether or not you’re going to get that bonus and stock options.

MARC STEINER To me it makes me think of— people look at this in many ways that this is just how America is built. This what we do in America. This is how the system works. So whether you’re functioning inside the system and that’s your job, and that’s how you view it because that’s your job. Or on the outside, giving up saying, this is just the way it is. Why beat your head against the wall? That’s what America is about.

WENDELL POTTER It’s what it’s about, but we’ve had such a growth in the power of corporations, far more than it was when I was growing up. Executive compensation is far, far higher than it ever was in the early beginnings of this country. It’s more like what we had during the Gilded Age of the early 1900s. We’re in a second Gilded Age in which the rich and powerful are much more influential than they had been in the past. But we’ve seen course corrections in our country’s history, as we saw then. This nonprofit organization that I started, Tarbell.org, is named after Ida Tarbell who was a muckraking journalist in the early 1900s during that Gilded Age. She set her sights on at the time the richest man in the world, John D Rockefeller, and his big monopoly, the Standard Oil Company. Her reporting was so impactful that it led to the breakup of that company into some very important anti-trust and campaign finance laws. We’re at a similar point in history in which we’ve seen once again, corporations amass tremendous power and people beginning to wake up to realize the consequences of that. There is a lot of support throughout the country for doing something to curb that power at both the state and municipal level and increasingly so, at the federal level.

MARC STEINER So one of the things that seemed to change that dynamic in the early part of the 19th century, I first thought of this thing about Dwight Eisenhower, what he warned us about as he was leaving office.

WENDELL POTTER Right, exactly.

MARC STEINER About the corporate military power complex and he wouldn’t even recognize what we are right now.

WENDELL POTTER He would not.

MARC STEINER As the president of my childhood, he would not remember.

WENDELL POTTER Mine too.

MARC STEINER But one of the things that seemed to change this was, the growth of the union movement. That was part of the push because labor stood up and said, we have to demand our rights. And there was this push to end the Gilded Age and it was much easier in some senses it seemed, to organize that in the 10s, 20s and 30s, than it is now because it’s such a disparate— it seems to me an almost wild west— atmosphere in terms of how Amazon and the rest of those companies work.

WENDELL POTTER That’s true. So I think you’ll have a different dynamic or a different set of circumstances that will be at play to curb this power. Once again, I think the labor unions can play a role, but they’re not as vigorous as they once were for sure. You’re seeing in— I live in Philadelphia and there’s a group called Philadelphia 3.0 in Philadelphia that is really focused on trying to root out corruption in local Philadelphia politics, which over the decades has been very corrupt. They’re there recruiting candidates, they’re figuring out how to get people more engaged in local elections, and they’re having some measure of success. Other cities are looking to do something comparable or are looking at how they can change campaign finance at the local or state level. In other words, I think that you’re seeing change happen, but it’s taking a different form in the 21st century.

MARC STEINER You have people like we’ve talked about earlier, before we got on camera together, people like Congressman John Sarbanes from here in Maryland with his H.R. 1, really going after money in politics and trying to change the entire dynamic and make certain things illegal. That’s in some ways what you might have to do to create a different kind of conversation in America, so it grabs hold of people who actually, in many ways don’t really think things can change. That’s part of the problem.

WENDELL POTTER They do. There is this feeling of helplessness or just that the system is the way it is, and nothing is going to change. You’re always going to have that, but you also are going to have, maybe starting with a small core group of people who are saying, well this is not working anymore, and this is taking us far, far from where we need to be, and certainly, far from what the Founders would have ever envisioned, and even what Dwight Eisenhower would have envisioned. So I think you’re seeing more activism. Just a few weeks ago, for example, I spoke at a conference in Nashville, Tennessee. It was called The Unrigged Summit, and people from all over the country came together. The sole purpose of coming together was in various ways to combat the influence, the growing influence of corporate power, and the influence of special interest on our politics.

MARC STEINER So as someone who spent all these years inside the corporate world and in a sense battling that world that you were in, trying to reform what we see in our country— how do you sit on the line here? Pessimist, Optimist? Do you think that this can change? How do you see that process actually happening?

WENDELL POTTER It depends on the day and at the time of the day [laughter], but overall I’m an optimist. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to help people wake up to the reality of how big corporations and special interests control our lives in ways that we’re usually oblivious to and it’s why I started again, Tarbell. We need to help educate people so that people can understand the consequences of what is happening and the rising power of corporations and special interests, how our daily lives are affected. But people need to know what they can do about it and at Tarbell and in the talks that I give, people are always asking me, what can I do?

MARC STEINER What do you say to them?

WENDELL POTTER I say, first of all, pay attention to the news, pay attention to your local politics, vote, become informed voters, but join organizations that are involved in one way or another in curbing corporate power. It could be an organization like Represent Us, which is a national organization but they have local chapters. Seek out those organizations that are trying to do something about this or just become more civically engaged on something that might be of specific interest to you, like health care, the climate, whatever it might be, or some local issue. Get involved. Don’t be a pessimist yourself. Don’t be someone who’s just resigned that this is the way things always will be. It will be that way unless we have more people who are engaged, but there are. I’m seeing signs all over the country of people becoming more engaged, more civically involved, and that’s what gives me hope and makes me an optimist.

MARC STEINER That’s a good thing. We could use a bit more of that in our country. A little more optimism would not hurt us in our struggle to make this a better place because you think about this and people think about Citizens United and what’s happening in the courts when it comes to corporate power, corporations being seen as persons, the way we look at them legally and the battle around that, and the increasing shift towards the right in our court system, which could lead people to some pessimism around this. And then you’ve got the battles we talked about— the H.R. 1, and the groups you’re talking about around the country in different cities that are actually trying to build something different. It seems to me it’s going to take a massive struggle to change that.

WENDELL POTTER It’s going to be. Anything that’s important and when you have some entrenched opposition, it’s a fight. It’s a struggle. Certainly those who have power, don’t want to give that power up, but it can’t happen as we’ve seen historically in this country, and over time in world civilization. We’ve seen that tyrants can be overcome, and that change can happen in a positive way. I think the arc of history is one that gives me some encouragement as well too.

MARC STEINER You mean Martin Luther King. [laughs]

WENDELL POTTER Exactly. It seems like progress can be very slow, and we have to consider this I think to a certain extent as a marathon rather than a sprint. We’re not going to overturn Citizens United tomorrow. It’s going to take a while but vote counts, people, organizations like the ones that we just talked about, I hope can encourage people to get out and vote. That’s the most important thing I think we can do.

MARC STEINER We’ve seen those other candidates winning, taking on the corporate elite and actually winning with small donors, emblematic of what actually could change.

WENDELL POTTER Which is extraordinarily exciting. You’re seeing candidates who are amassing a lot of campaign money through very small campaign donations and you’re seeing increasingly, cities taking action to increase the power of individual donors. In New York City, for example, they have passed some years ago, campaign finance reform that empowers small donors. Someone in New York who can give $10 to a candidate can find his or her contribution matched to be the equivalent of $90 and candidates no longer have to go just to the rich and powerful in New York. They can now get quite a lot of campaign money from donors who can’t afford more than $10. So that’s changing the dynamics of the electorate and who represents the electorate.

MARC STEINER So Baltimore and other parts of our nation, wake up. It can happen in your backyard as well.

WENDELL POTTER It absolutely can.

MARC STEINER It’s great to be able to wind down my day with a more optimistic view of where we might go, Wendell. Thanks so much.

WENDELL POTTER Marc, thank you.

MARC STEINER I really mean it. Thank you. So we’ve been here with Wendell Potter and I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. We’re going to come back with Wendell at some point soon and reprobe this much deeper. Thank you. Take care.