Author Wendell Potter

The bestselling author shares about his recent text Nation On The Take, which assesses the damage that “big money” has done to our democracy.

Following a 20-year career as a corporate PR exec, Wendell Potter left his position with one of the largest health insurers in the U.S. and became an outspoken critic of the industry. He's currently a senior analyst at The Center for Public Integrity and senior fellow on health care for the Center for Media and Democracy. In his exposé of health insurers, Deadly Spin, he gives a stark warning on the impact of the "corporate spin." Potter began his career as a reporter in his native Tennessee and was previously a partner in an Atlanta PR firm.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with New York Times bestselling author, Wendell Potter, about his latest text called “Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts our Democracy and What We Can Do About It”.

Then a conversation with “Orange is the New Black” actress, Diane Guerrero, who joins us to talk about her new memoir, “In the Country We Love: My Family Divided”.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Those conversations coming up right now.

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Tavis: Campaign funding, to be sure, has been a key issue in this presidential primary cycle in large part because of the success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Unlike their rivals, both candidates refused to take big money donations and, as a result, pitched themselves as leaders who could represent the interest of the people, not big business.

And yet, within days of being declared the presumptive GOP nominee, Mr. Trump selected a hedge fund founder and second generation Goldman Sachs alum as his national campaign finance chair who expects to raise more than $1 billion between Trump’s campaign and the party.

Wendell Potter is a consumer advocate and a New York Times bestselling author. His latest text is called “Nation the Take: How Big Money Corrupts our Democracy and What We Can Do About It”. Wendell, good to have you back on the program.

Wendell Potter: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start first with your take on this Trump announcement that I’ve just referenced a moment ago.

Potter: Well, you know, I think it’s going to probably turn off a lot of his supporters because he has campaigned–I think one of the reasons he has attracted so much support is because he said he couldn’t be bought. And I think what he’s doing now is making a big turn in what he’s said to followers, “Now I am going to be raising large sums of money just like everybody else is.”

Tavis: So I guess my take on it is a little bit–I agree with that. I guess my take, though, is a bit nuanced in that Donald Trump’s done a 180, but Barack Obama did a 180 as well.

Potter: He did.

Tavis: So whether it’s left or right, I wonder what it says about the fact that you just cannot get elected, no matter what your intent is, about what your strategy is. No matter where you start, at some point you have to make that 180, they will tell us, because they can’t win without the money.

Potter: That’s true. We’ve seen Bernie Sanders raise a ton of money through small donations, but he’s not raising nearly as much money as Hillary Clinton is raising. We are going to be seeing in this election cycle probably a total of $10 billion dollars being spent on the presidential election and down ballot elections. That’s a decrease of just $2 billion dollars or $3 billion dollars from the year 2000.

So we’ve seen an explosion of money that is really influencing our ability to self-govern. That’s what my co-author, Nick Penniman, and I say. We say it’s reached the point that we have a stage four cancer in our democracy.

Tavis: And stage four is pretty deadly for some people.

Potter: It’s pretty deadly. When you look at the data, not only are we spending that much money, but when you look at how much money is spent to influence public policy through lobbying, during the Kennedy years we had about 2,000 lobbyists in Washington. Now we have 12,000. We spend more money now. More money is spent lobbying Congress than actually running Congress.

Members of Congress now have to spend 50% of their time every single day raising money for reelection. It’s a constant campaign. They’re not able to spend money on the peoples’ business. They can’t become familiar with legislation or even take the time to go to committee meetings much anymore.

Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this question, but it does always tickle me that none of these politicians actually revels in what they have to do to get reelected.

Potter: They don’t.

Tavis: They all hate it. If they had their druthers, they’d much rather not be begging people for money all the time.

Potter: They do.

Tavis: So if they all hate it, then why won’t they just fix it? If you’re in this cesspool and you hate being in the cesspool and you can all come together and fix the conditions in the cesspool, why does it require an outside movement? Why won’t you just fix it? Because you’re tired of spending your time raising money all the time anyway.

Potter: We have almost an arms race. The Republicans are afraid to take the first step or the Democrats are, so we’ve gotten to the point that both parties and candidates on both sides are just having to spend and raise so much more money. Members of Congress actually leave their offices every day because they can’t legally raise money while they’re in their offices.

They walk a few blocks to the party campaign headquarters and they go into small offices or cubicles and they just dial for dollars. And the people they’re calling, of course, are not people like regular folks. They’re dialing the wealthiest and they’re beholding to those people.

Tavis: So I think what I hear you saying to my question is that they all would benefit from changing the rules, but it’s a you-go-first thing.

Potter: That’s exactly right. They hate it and you could talk to them individually, and they despise having to do that. It’s demeaning. They’re essentially telemarketers most of the time these days.

Tavis: Who has the advantage this time around, fundraising?

Potter: I think at the end of the day, it’ll be pretty much a draw. I think it looks like Hillary Clinton may have an edge even on Wall Street because it seems as if a lot of people on Wall Street are favoring her campaign. That may change in the months ahead.

I think they’ll both try to spend about as much money as the other side does, and that’s what’s happening. They look to see how much the other is trying to raise and trying to spend. They don’t want to be outraised and outspent.

Tavis: It seems to me that there are only so many commercials you can buy and, at some point, as we get closer to the end game here, you’re just getting bombarded with commercials every time the show you’re watching takes a break. And at some point, it doesn’t even sink in. I mean, there’s just an overabundance of TV ads. So like when do you get to a point of diminishing returns?

Potter: You know, I used to work for a candidate a long time ago myself. He used the term “the proverbial urping point”, that you do reach that point where people start to tune out. But the candidates don’t know exactly when to pull back. They’re afraid that, if they do, that the other candidate will gain some advantage.

But it’s not just the money that’s spent on the presidential contest, and that’s one of the things that I think is really important to consider. Much of the money, if not most of the money, is spent on Congressional races.

As I said before, they raise money constantly, and these people who are supposedly our employees are now more beholding to special interests who really call the shots. No legislation gets through Congress these days without first essentially getting the permission of the industries that the legislation is supposedly going to be affecting.

That happened with the Affordable Care Act. I was there during the healthcare reform debate. It happened with the financial services reform legislation. Nothing is passed that doesn’t first get the blessing of the special interests.

Tavis: The subtitle of your text suggests that there is something we can do about this. I want to confess up front that I’m becoming less and less hopeful about that in part because, as I said early, if candidates who are raising large sums from individual donors like Bernie Sanders can’t fix itBarack Obama got elected not once but twice. He thought he could fix it and he did a 180. He didn’t get it fixed.

So it’s going to take that kind of person who’s not relying on the system as it’s currently structured to fix it. Yet I don’t see anybody who has the capacity to do that.

Potter: You’re not seeing it at the federal level yet, but I think you eventually will. You aren’t seeing it the state and local levels. In South Carolina, for example, they passed a law not too long ago that makes it illegal for lobbyists to make campaign contributions to legislators, legislative candidates.

That’s important and a lot of the states have ballot initiatives this coming November that will put into place some campaign finance reform laws.

We’re seeing that in red states as well as blue states, and we’re seeing Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, come together like in Tallahassee, for example. Tea Party members joined forces with liberals down there because they both were disgusted with the corruption in local politics.

Tavis: Forgive my skepticism, but in South Carolina, where’s the loophole? Because lobbyists never let themselves get cut completely out. There’s got to be a loophole somewhere, Wendell.

Potter: No, actually, the courts have upheld it and both parties like it because–and lobbyists, quite frankly, like it as well too. They don’t necessarily like always being hit up for campaign contributions.

So it’s working well, and if it’s working in South Carolina, we think that it can be replicated around the country and should be in Washington as well. We also need to make sure that we do something to jam the revolving door. Members of Congress, 50% of them, now leave their offices to go into lobbying.

Just a few years ago, it was just about 3 or 4%. Now half of them do, and they do that because the special interests like the pharmaceutical industry, for example, hired a former lawmaker who was making about $180,000. The day he took that new job, he was paid $3 million dollars. It paid off well for them.

Tavis: How do you close that door if they know going in that there’s always money to be made coming out?

Potter: You have to have a longer what we call a cooling off period. You’ve got to have a longer period of time before a member of Congress or a staff member can go into lobbying work. That would really address that.

Tavis: Isn’t one of those loopholes, though, they take these jobs where they consult, but they’re really not registered as a lobbyist? How do you close that loophole?

Potter: As Newt Gingrich did a few years ago.

Tavis: Yeah.

Potter: The law has to be comprehensive. The changes had to be comprehensive to address those kinds of loopholes. We know how they do take advantage of it, so that’s something that should and must be addressed.

Tavis: Since at the federal level, to your earlier point, Wendell, it seems like there’s not much agency that we have right now, but there are examples in states and municipalities where these laws are starting to change.

Potter: Right.

Tavis: Is this fight going to mirror the minimum wage, the living wage, fight where it happens at the local and state level before it catches fire nationally?

Potter: I think there’s no doubt about it in big cities and small. In New York, for example, residents there, voters there, can now see their contributions matched and it’s changed the way that candidates seek campaign contributions. No longer do they just go to the upper east side and the upper west side where the wealthy folks live. They can go throughout the boroughs to get campaign contributions.

A New Yorker who makes the $50 campaign contribution can see his or her donation matched up to six times, so that contribution can be the equivalent of $350. So when you have that going on, there’s less of a need for those candidates to just call the wealthiest.

Tavis: You don’t sense, though, any impetus, any movement whatsoever in Congress to rewrite the law. What the Supreme Court basically said, you know, with Citizens United was they put forth their interpretation and basically said, “If you guys want to change it, you can change the law.” Congress could, but you don’t see any reason at this point why they would do that, do you?

Potter: Not really. Not with the current makeup of Congress. I think, over time, that can happen. There is legislation, in fact, bipartisan legislation where a Republican recently introduced a bill that would do a lot to rein in this corruption.

But keep in mind too that the Supreme Court decision can be changed depending on whoever is elected the next president. There could be opportunities for a case to come before the next court that could lead to a reversal of Citizens United.

Tavis: Since the media loves making all this money, there’s never any thought that they would say that, based upon the fact that they care about the democracy, that they want to see these laws change.

Potter: I think you’re going to see that there will be some opposition and I think the media would not necessarily be onboard, at least the business managers, because absolutely during election years, they make a lot of money.

Tavis: They clean up. It is a nation on the take, and that’s the title of this text from Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman, “Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It.” Get ready, as you heard Wendell say, for an election that’s going to tip out, top out at about $10 billion dollars. Wow. Good to have you on, Wendell. Thanks for your insights.

Potter: Thanks, Tavis.

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Last modified: May 12, 2016 at 1:16 pm