The democracy rebellion happening in states across the U.S.
Hedrick Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of bestselling books The Russians, Who Stole the American Dream? and many others. Over the course of his nearly 60 years in journalism, he’s interviewed some of the biggest politicians and power brokers on the national and international stage. Now, his reporter’s curiosity has led him to places like Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Hartford, Connecticut to report on efforts to end gerrymandering, remove money from politics, and fight corruption through grassroots organizing.
Smith joins us this week to talk about what he learned from these organizers while filming his latest project, a documentary called The Democracy Rebellion: A Reporter’s Notebook with Hedrick Smith that will air on PBS this January. He says that the grassroots are not nearly as polarized as politicians and political insiders, as evidenced by the fact that many of these pro-democracy ballot initiatives passed with large bipartisan majorities.
Smith also reflects on the state of the media today and why grassroots movements can’t seem to capture the attention that horse race politics do. It’s part of the reason why he’s still out there pounding the pavement as a reporter and getting out of his home in Washington, D.C. to meet people doing the hard work of democracy every day.
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[8:26 ] How did the story of democracy reform come onto your radar?
It’s a great story nobody else is covering and that’s always interesting to me. I wrote a book some years ago called, Who Stole the American Dream? that was really about how we got to the terrible economic inequalities we have today, and to the dysfunctional political system we have today. And as I went around the country giving talks about that, people said, “What are we going to do about that?” or “Do you know about this?”And I began to discover there was a lot more going on around the country, at the grassroots, at the state level, and it was totally being ignored by Washington.
[10:20 ] What motivates the grassroots organizers you met?
They’re, they’re angry that democracy doesn’t work right. They don’t feel as though their votes count, they don’t feel as though Washington listens to them. You look at poll after poll and it says lobbyists have too much power, corporations have taken over, Washington, they’ve captured the congress, and our system is broken.
[18:14 ] How should organizations strike a balance between making changes through ballot initiatives and longer-term political reforms?
There is a sense that reform as an issue is something people are looking for candidates to advocate is certainly front and center now. It’s coming, though it’s not yet high enough on the priority list for people to really be concerned about. I mean, you still have people worried, understandably, about jobs, about immigration, about climate change and so forth. So it’s among the top tier issues but it’s not at the top.
[20:09 ] Is it possible that there could be too many groups competing for money, attention, and other resources?
The answer is yes. I did a documentary for PBS Frontline some years ago called Poisoned Waters, which is an effort to look at what happened to the Clean Water Act 35 years later. And when I went into the field, I was just amazed at how many, environmental groups were competing for time, money, and resources. There’s no question that the political reform movement suffers from the same kind of thing. It is sprawling.
[26:11 ] What happens to the organizers after whatever they’re working toward is successful? Do they move on to other causes or organizations?
In a number of states, they fight off the effort of the other side to reverse the reform. So they’re often very engaged in that. Then once they’ve survived that cycle, then they start to look around and see what else they need to do. In Florida, they moved from the gerrymander reform into restoring the, the voting rights of former felons and that kind of stuff. So I think what happens is, not everybody does it, but usually the leaders and some of the people that are important say, “Well this other issue is important to us. Let’s, let’s move ahead on it.” I think there’s a sense that people power can work and does work and we got a victory here and our system is going to be better for it.
[30:50 ] Why don’t these issues receive more media attention?
I think there’s a sense that nothing can be done and it’s all a result of hyper-partisanship. That’s the easy story to tell. Trump news is also big and media outlets are making enormous money off of it. It’s really easy to produce and something I call fire engine journalism. There’s lots of drama but you haven’t really told people anything they really need to know. We’re so caught up in easy reporting and profitable journalism that we’re not doing our job. We’re also very comfortable sitting in New York, Los Angeles and Washington and telling everybody what’s going on in the rest of the country