How Engaged Citizens Can End Corruption and Create Change
Represent San Diego and Independent Voter Project presented a screening of Daniel Falconer’s award-winning anti-corruption documentary, "UnRepresented," to an audience of 120 democracy reform advocates and concerned citizens on Oct. 10. The screening was followed by a lively and in-depth discussion of the challenges raised by the film’s unflinching look at the current state of American democracy.
"UnRepresented" is a short film with a big message: legalized political corruption is ruining our democracy. It features first-hand accounts by government officials of the corruption they have witnessed and from advocates fighting against it. The documentary reveals the systemic forces driving political corruption and suggests unprecedented reforms to create a government that better serves the people.
The discussion involved noted political reformers and experts on American democracy:
- Daniel Falconer, Director, "UnRepresented"
- Dan Schnur, Professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications and the University of California – Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and former Chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission
- Greg Orman, entrepreneur, businessman and leading voice in the U.S. political independent movement
- Abby Wood, Associate Professor of Law, Political Science and Public Policy at the USC Gould School of Law
You can view the entire panel discussion at UnRepresented Film Screening & Panel Discussion.
What follows are excerpted comments from the panel discussion arranged by topic.
Daniel Falconer: When we think of corruption, it’s not a matter of taking bribes, it’s more a matter of not being able to take the time to listen to their [representatives’] constituents because they’ve got to be on the hunt for campaign dollars.
Greg Orman: Washington is a rigged game that only benefits those people that have the ability to buy access to power.
Abby Wood: Money leads to better access, and I was really glad to see that highlighted by the film. It really shows that money does buy access.
Is There Hope?
Daniel Falconer: I came away with a sense of hope from most people I encountered in that they haven’t given up and they’re working on it daily, and there’s always a community there. There’s never a lone crusader trying to get things done, however modest the organization, there was a sense of community and they were engaged.
Dan Schnur: Most reforms start at the local level and bubble up to the federal level. For those who think things are hopeless or who feel disheartened, local and state reform efforts are much more achievable. It can be building blocks toward the national outcome.
Money and Free Speech
Abby Wood: If you want to reduce the amount of money in politics, you’ve got to pass [a] constitutional amendment which says that money is not speech. Then you can talk about getting regulations that can survive Supreme Court scrutiny. I think it’s a hard move to get through, but I know there are a lot of people who are optimistic about it.
Dan Schnur: Let’s say I’m giving a speech. Abby pulls up next to me in a sound truck and offloads two huge speakers right next to me and cranks up the volume to ten on both. Not only is she exercising her right to free speech, but she’s interfering with mine as well.
When you decide, as the Supreme Court did in the 1970’s, that money is the functional equivalent of speech, what you’re essentially saying is that whether it’s a ten-dollar contribution or a million-dollar contribution, it’s OK for that million-dollar contribution to obscure the rights of others.
Deficit Spending and Reform
Greg Orman: Imposing some structural discipline on Congress to live within their means and not pass along immoral deficits and debts to our children seems to be a requirement to get Congress to exercise discipline...We’re now at a point where we have $27 trillion in debt and we have the lowest interest rates we’ve seen in thirty years. There aren’t any consequences to that behavior that so many of us view as incredibly irresponsible.
Daniel Falconer: Getting a handle on the national debt would make it harder for politicians to spend endless amounts of money and would make it more likely that there would be discussion and debate about how we spend money.
Which Reforms are Most Needed?
Greg Orman: Reforms like ranked choice voting make it impossible to say, “Ignore the quality of the candidate, let’s just think about the strategy of the election.” You can’t support a candidate that inspires you and that you like because that might possibly lead to a candidate you don’t like getting elected. We are no longer voting for candidates we like or we love or that inspire us, we vote against candidates we hate and we fear.
Dan Schnur: The best way to get policy outcomes is to reach out to people for whom political reform is an abstract, but for whom health care, quality schools, safe streets, job opportunities are understandable frustrations that their elected officials aren’t addressing. There’s nothing wrong with working toward reforms, but the ultimate solution is electing people who will make those reforms unnecessary. To the extent that political reforms are important, it’s to ease the path for people like that to get elected to office.
Abby Wood: Dark money funds a bunch of the stuff you’re opposed to. Corporations can make independent expenditures which are not coordinated with a campaign directly from their treasuries. They [corporations] start making a bunch of shell corporations that can make these expenditures with no transparency. It’s the elected branches’ job to put some transparency on these things but, of course, they’re not motivated to do that.
We need to know these people behind these shell corporations that are funding these things.
Dan Schnur: Prohibiting Congress or state legislatures from raising money while in session is a way of not eliminating the money-equals-speech disparity, but of tremendously weakening it. If I write you a check fifteen minutes before or after you vote for a bill, the quid pro quo is so thick you can taste it. I could write you the same check six months earlier or six months later, and no matter how meticulous a record keeper you are, the emotional impact isn’t nearly the same.
Greg Orman: We should end leadership PACS, these big PACs that are funded almost exclusively by special interests and are used by party leaders in the House and the Senate to keep their members in line. Lobbyists should be prohibited from raising contributions, bundling contributions or holding fundraisers on behalf of members of Congress or Congressional candidates.
What Can I Do?
Abby Wood: As far as what you can do as an individual, I’m not kidding, subscribe to your local newspapers. That’s very important if you want to hold these low-visibility officials accountable for the money they take in and the favors that they do, you need to have reporters on the ground looking at all of that.
Greg Orman: There are lots of reforms that can be enacted at the state level or the local level that ultimately serve as the building blocks of something that can get done federally. Having something happen in San Diego like a top-four primary with a ranked choice general election would expose a significant population to a reform I think could be instrumental, and as we saw outcomes from that, change peoples’ lives.
Dan Schnur: States are known as the laboratories of democracy for a reason. They’re where we try these things out, and if they work, we take them national, if not, we step back and fix them. I promise you, there’s a member of your city council, of your local school board, a state assembly member from your immediate area who cares about this stuff as much as you do. Go see him or her, make that reform work right here, wherever here is, and then take it to the big show. Let’s try this stuff out in our local communities, fix what doesn’t work, and then take it to the big show. That’s the only way we’re going to make these changes happen.