The Emmy-winning TV broadcaster, former judge and author of Patriot Acts talks about corporate money and politics and the need for the American people to get angry about things that matter to them.
Award-winning TV broadcaster Catherine Crier
Tavis: Catherine Crier was the youngest elected state judge in the history of Texas before leaving her judicial career for journalism, going on to cover national and legal affairs for CNN, ABC, Court TV and others.
She’s also a best-selling author whose latest text is called “Patriot Acts: What Americans Must Do to Save the Republic.” Catherine, good to have you on this program.
Catherine Crier: Great to be here.
Tavis: What we must do to save the republic – is it too late?
Crier: I worry. I really, really do. One of my favorite lines when I was researching this book is from John Adams: “Ideology is the science of idiots,” and people don’t understand when they live in their little ideological boxes, and I don’t care whether it’s right or left, that oftentimes they are defending things that are destroying the constitutional republic.
And unless people understand that’s the first line of defense – we’ve got to sustain what the Founders gave us – then we can have our great fights on the right and the left. But we are invading the structure of our republic in very dangerous ways.
Tavis: So how are we termiting the structure?
Crier: Well, there are all sorts of things. Right now I was reading about one of the Bush lawyers who was constantly defending a unitary presidency, right, empowering the executive branch, and we know national security issues, all sorts of things, very objectionable.
Now he’s objecting to Obama doing many of the same things, and there are plenty of people on the left who are concerned about civil rights, the PATRIOT Act, this sort of thing. I argue in the book that you’ve got to understand and play by the same rules.
It’s not who’s in power but what our officials are entitled to do under the Constitution. So there are so many examples where we’re basically destroying the foundation, and it is quite frightening, because you cannot rely on a judiciary which can be politicized, you can’t rely on the legislative branch. We have to be out there as citizens understanding this and defending it.
Tavis: If I said to you that part of the problem is that the structure itself is undermining the republic – that is to say, when the Supreme Court renders certain decisions, say, Citizens United, that they are helping to destroy this fragile system, you’d say what?
Crier: Well, I’d say you’re right, because as much as we would like to believe the courts are truly independent, we can go throughout history, and I talk about this. In 1886 in the Santa Clara Railroad case was where corporations got “personhood,” and it was a time period in which the bench was driven by sort of corporatist influence, the appointees.
There’s no question the bench can be political. Now usually, over time, we correct those mistakes, and sometimes, like with Citizens United, it may take a constitutional amendment. But I think that if we are to preserve a democratic republic, we have to overturn that decision. We have to get corporate money out of politics.
Tavis: Anything that you think a constitutional amendment right now would fix regarding our broken system? I ask that knowing that it’s the most difficult thing in the world to do, two-thirds of the Senate and the House, two-thirds of the states. It’s impossible to do, almost; that’s why it doesn’t get tried often.
Tavis: But is there anything that a constitutional amendment right now would fix regarding the challenges that we face?
Crier: Well, I think that we’ve got to understand that I believe most of our representatives, members of the House and of the Senate, don’t represent the people who actually sent them there, and I mean the red and the blue states.
They represent the big money interests that keep them in office, both Democrats and Republicans, and I go after both sides in the book.
Crier: So unless you get back to actually representing constituents on Capitol Hill or in the state house, then we’re not a democracy, period. So yes, the constitutional amendment, if you can get that money out, but that in and of itself isn’t enough, because we see how easy it is to get around.
Right now we’ve got all of these “nonprofit” groups that are raising money and supposedly doing it for social welfare programs, and we find out that the majority of their activities are political. So all of a sudden, corporations are contributing to nonprofits, deducting the contributions, but it’s all political money going into the system.
So to think that we’re getting out of the sewer with a constitutional amendment would be incorrect, and what you said – we cannot rely on that right now unless you’ve got a major grassroots movement threatening the politicians with being tossed out, because their interests are so aligned with big money, they’re not going to support a constitutional amendment.
We’re not going to get it unless the American people understand that this is a government of and by and for the people, and the people have to, at times, act. You can’t wait for your elected officials.
Tavis: Let me (unintelligible) a little bit further. Tell me how you fix the problem when both sides, to your point, are knee-deep in this. So you’ve got the Republicans, certainly Romney and others in this race at the moment, who are activating these super-PACs religiously, pardon the pun. Gingrich would have been gone were it not for super-PACs. Romney might not be the frontrunner were it not for super-PACs.
Mr. Obama has done a 180; now he’s playing the super-PAC game. So I’m trying to figure out who do we expect in Washington is going to fix this when the very people that we did, in fact, send there are playing this game on both sides of the aisle? How does this magically – who’s got the magic wand to fix this?
Crier: And the Supreme Court is –
Tavis: Exactly, made the decision that made corporations – exactly.
Tavis: So you can’t rely on the executive – you just broke this down.
Crier: That’s right, that’s right.
Tavis: You can’t rely on the executive branch, Mr. Obama did a 180; you can’t rely on the legislative branch, they’re the guys that did the mess; the judicial branch made corporations people. So we ain’t got but three branches of government, Catherine.
Crier: Yeah, but we got 320 million people, and how many of those are voters? We have an abysmal turnout in our election system. When we’re compared to the rest of the world, it is horrific. We take this system for granted.
The American people have, on occasion, rallied, objected to things, and almost overnight you’ve seen a transition. Bank of America threatens a $5 a month fee on the cards, within a week we’ve got legislation. Telemarketers call us on Saturday night; overnight, we can get rid of that.
The American people need to get angry about things that really, really matter, because we still have a democracy. We can do this. I happen to advocate public financing of campaigns, I do. Remember the $10 check-off on our tax returns?
For heaven’s sakes, we can’t give 10 bucks on our tax return to go to our electoral system? That ultimately is the answer, but I can hear the screams and hollers and speech and money and the rest of this. But we have to understand that we are destroying what has made this country so great, so unique, and the beacon for the world was our constitutional republic. We are turning into, instead, a banana republic.
Tavis: If I said to you that part of what’s aiding and abetting that turning into a banana republic is the media itself, that there is grist for the mill, there is money to be made, there are ratings to be had – and you’ve been in this for a lot of years, you know how this works.
That MSNBC gets something out of this by playing the left game; that “Fox News” gets something out of this by playing the right game. What I’m suggesting is that part of what keeps this divide between the two parties alive is the media itself.
So forget free television time, forget public financed campaigns. You can’t get the freaking media to play the game fair because there’s money to be made on both sides. So are we part of the problem?
Crier: Well, and every time you try and reform campaign contributions, advertising for campaigns, the media’s back there going, we make our big money off of commercials during the electoral season. We’re not about to squash any of that.
Well, to be really candid, before I wrote this book I was pitching a book on the media, which may be the next book, and –
Tavis: Let me guess – and no publisher in town would take that book because then they said to you, “Catherine, who’s going to publish that? We’ll publish it, who’s going to interview for it?” You beat the left and the right up – whose show you going to go on?
Crier: That’s exactly right.
Tavis: There’s only one PBS.
Crier: That’s exactly what happened.
Tavis: I can’t – Charlie and I alone can’t put you on the list.
Crier: They said, “If you only attack the left or you only attack the right, we’re there, you can do it. But you go after everybody.” But the fourth estate – remember what Jefferson said – a choice between a free government and a free press, he would take a free press to let the people know what’s going on.
I think the media has let down the American people, across the board, and we can’t scream on the left and the right without disaffecting the silent majority, without telling people, at least subliminally, if not directly, that there is no rational, pragmatic voice in this country.
As Barbara Bush said when she was expressing her disappointment about this electoral season, she goes, “Compromise is not a dirty word.” A democracy is built on compromise, working together. Elections have consequences. You accept defeat and you rally for the next two or four-year electoral cycle.
But you work together to move the country forward. We’ve lost that and the media has exacerbated that mentality, yeah.
Tavis: So maybe Americans at large don’t understand, appreciate or embrace the fragility of our republic, but maybe there’s a moment for some traction here to be gained because they do understand the economic malaise that we’re in. I wonder whether or not the economic troubles that we are in give us an opening to start to address these broader questions.
Crier: Well, it does if people take a moment and learn some lessons from history. I spend a lot of time in this book taking people back to the foundation of capitalism, and I went back to Adam Smith, because people talk about free markets, hands off, deregulation, don’t touch – that’s capitalism.
No, that’s corporatism, and in fact Adam Smith wrote the theory, “Wealth of Nations,” the theories of capitalism, to protest mercantilism. What was that? That was the marriage of big government and big business in England, where the little guy, the shopkeeper, the farmer, the small entrepreneur or innovator, had no chance.
He said the only way you have economic justice, liberty, opportunity, not outcome, for people is if you don’t allow the concentration of wealth and power on the private side. If you do, the only counterbalance is the government – the people’s government, he was hoping – and that’s because little guys can’t counter the big guys.
But concentrated wealth and power, corporatism today, destroys capitalism. He also talked extensively about worker’s rights, the need for a social safety net, because capitalism by its very nature causes disparity, great disparity. So you’re constantly trying not to level the field, not to equal outcome, but to bring it back together.
He said you’ve got to have worker’s rights, a social safety net, to create the stability needed for capitalism to survive. So if people go back and understand to defend capitalism is to defend appropriate regulation, is to defend appropriate worker’s rights, appropriate social safety net, then all of a sudden we could have a whole different conversation about where the country is going and what we need to do.
As opposed to this nonsense right now that anything for workers or Social Security is socialism, that any regulation is suppressing capitalism – well, Adam Smith would be rolling over in his grave.
Tavis: I wonder if I can stretch it a little further and ask whether or not, as politically incorrect as it is, it’s time for us to rethink capitalism?
Crier: Well, see, my argument is yeah, let’s rethink – let’s go back to what Adam Smith said, because we’re not defending today capitalism. I literally spend chapters taking people from 1776 through the 1800s, the growth of the corporation, when it became this sort of personhood.
Back in the 1800s, when a corporation didn’t fulfill its mission statement it lost its charter. Citizens could object to a company coming into their environment and say, “No, this isn’t right for us.” Corporations couldn’t come in and say, “Well, we have property rights here and we can do anything we want, and you don’t have a voice anymore.”
We’re seeing this around the country. Right now citizens in Florida are objecting to private prisons. There’s some fracking issues going on in upstate New York, where citizens are going, “We don’t know that we want this in our community.”
Where’s the balance? I’m not saying sort of oh, socialism and communities can throw business out the window. There’s a balance.
But you look at the evolution, we have a corporatist system. We don’t have a capitalist system. In fact, capitalism encourages entrepreneurs, small businesses, all of the things that create a healthy domestic economy.
What concerns me most today about sort of corporatism, if you go back to the early 1900s you had the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the robber barons, gilded age forward, and we could object about a lot of their activities, but their money stayed in the United States.
They built universities and hospitals and all sorts of things, so there were objections, but the money circulated here. Now, with the global corporations, they may be flagged in the United States, we may call them U.S., but in ’09, there was a White House economist that said for the first time there was no correlation between our GDP and the wellbeing of our domestic economy.
Now, you realize that what’s happening is we’re getting overseas revenue reported. People go, “Oh, the stock market’s going up. Our GDP’s going up. We’re getting better.”
No, because there’s no correlation between these big multinational corporations and how well they’re doing and the wellbeing of our domestic economy. So until we understand that that’s not workers, that’s not just the middle class, that is the United States of America on the global arena, if we don’t protect and preserve that, we’re in big trouble.
Tavis: I want to go back to something you said a moment ago. I’m thinking of a quote, and I can’t recall who actually said this, but the quote was that one man’s verisimilitude is another man’s fakery.
Put another way, what I call income inequality, Mitt Romney would call the politics of envy. So I’m trying to figure out how you get a conversation about these robber barons of today, either by individual name or by corporate affiliation, how you even get that conversation off the ground when to even talk about income inequality in this country is to get pushed back on for engaging in the “politics of envy.”
Crier: See, the problem I have with that whole conversation is if income inequality was simply because meritorious individuals were succeeding and the lazy sloths of the world were sitting back taking welfare checks, that’s one thing.
But when we’re talking about a system that is rigged, where the big guys are getting all the bucks not because of merit, not because of contributions to our domestic economy, but because of a rigged political system, then we’re not talking – we’re talking two different games.
They’ve rigged the system, and in many ways you look at those who do very well in society and I consider myself blessed. I was born to a white family in the United States of America where it was a middle class existence. We weren’t wealthy, but I know the kind of opportunities I had walking out the door, right?
So I can’t say I started on the same playing field as other people. I want equal opportunity. That fair start at the beginning, and then the chips fall where they may. But when the system is skewed from the start for big corporations, for certainly a lot of members of society, and then for them to say – it’s the old you’re born on third base and you think you hit a triple.
Come on, guys. It’s not to take away – I’m not interested in taking from those individuals. I’m interested in balancing out for everyone else.
Tavis: The problem is, though, as you well know, that for many Americans who were born in the middle class or had a chance to elevate into the middle class, that now, the bottom has fallen out.
I’ve said many times on this program the new poor in this country are the former middle class.
Crier: Sure, yeah.
Tavis: The numbers are bearing that out.
Tavis: I believe, and you tell me what you think about it, my sense is that the thing that most puts us in danger of losing the republic right now is poverty. You cannot – I really believe that the very future of this democracy is connected to whether or not we are going to get serious about reducing and eradicating poverty. A democracy can’t sustain itself with the gap between the have-gots and the have-nots widening every single day. I don’t want to get on my soapbox here but how –
Crier: But we can –
Tavis: What does poverty have to do with saving the republic?
Crier: Yeah, because forget the empathy or sympathy for impoverished – we are a consumer society. Our economic wellbeing relies on – or at least, and I’ll go back to that disconnect between GDP and wellbeing – relies on the ability of consumers to buy stuff.
But right now, a lot of multinationals go, we don’t need you anymore. We don’t need to build up the domestic economy, because our consumers are in India or China or elsewhere.
We need to understand that they’re not always looking out for our best interests anymore. Now, I’m not at all saying that corporations are all malevolent and bad. I’ve been rich, poor, everybody, we want to make money, no problem. But we’ve got to understand that unless we have a consuming class, a healthy class, an educated class, we’re going to lose the world game.
The United States, not individuals, not working Americans, not the middle class, our country will lose. So poverty is an issue we should be concerned about for a lot of moral reasons, personal reasons, but economically, the United States will fail. When you look at businesses that have said over and over again, countless studies – you hear from Republicans it’s all regulation keeping businesses from getting ahead.
But the studies show the companies are saying, no, it’s because we don’t have consumers. We don’t have people at home who can buy our products. That’s why we’re not seeking loans, that’s why we’re not expanding our businesses. It comes down to unless you’ve got a wage and a salary, unless you can take care of your family, you don’t have money to go out there and buy stuff, which is the heart and soul of our consuming economy.
Tavis: In this conversation we have indicted – you have –
Crier: (Laughter) I did it, I did it.
Tavis: You have indicted, tried and found guilty, Judge Crier, the body politic, we have talked about corporate America, we’ve talked about the media. I want to talk about the people and the role they play in helping to save the republic, because part of what I sense in certain parts of the book is that you recognize, as I do, that there is a – how might I put this? – there’s a devolution of our culture. There’s a decay in our civilization.
Our morals, our values, our social mores, et cetera, et cetera – I’ll let you take it from here. But I’m trying to figure out what the role is that we the people play in saving the republic.
Crier: It was an interesting debate, and I talk a lot about this in the book, between Jefferson and Adams, when they were talking about sort of the theories of the country. Adams and Hamilton actually were wanting a monarchy. They were wanting truly a country built on the British system.
Jefferson believed in the common man, really believed that individuals could be the citizens who drove our form of government, who drove our system. But that means we have to actually be those individuals. We have to play that kind of role.
I was serving on an American Bar Association committee a while back and Justice O’Connor was also on the committee, and she told a story, and I’m not going to mention the school to save them, but upper classmen at one of the military academies, they were discussing the three branches of government with Justice O’Connor.
She asked them some questions and they couldn’t answer, and these were upperclassmen, top, cream of the crop, and one of our missions on this committee was trying to reinstitute civics education, social studies, history again, teaching to the test, No Child Left Behind.
Now we don’t talk about these things. But this country was not built on the same blood or religion. We’re not united by those things. We’re united by ideals and ideas.
If people don’t understand them, know their responsibility in keeping them alive, if we don’t pass on and assimilate all of the immigrants, others, into these ideals, they die, and we cannot sustain them.
So every citizen in this country Jefferson believed would step up to the plate. Adams, on the other hand, said there’s never been a democracy that didn’t commit suicide, and he thought, in fact, we would end up with an aristocracy and that the people would willingly abdicate their role.
Tavis: That’s scary.
Tavis: In 2012, that’s very scary.
Tavis: I got a minute to go. You don’t discuss this in the book, but since you’re here I want to ask. What this debate, this war on women, as some have called it, what that has to do with advancing, with saving our democracy, women’s rights are going to be under attack again and thereby the rights of children, et cetera. What’s this moment say about saving our Republican vis-à-vis this issue?
Crier: Well for one thing, I think that women of this country better get the fact that they’re a majority. We need to get aggressive. We are, what, we are 78th in the world in terms of women representation in our governmental system, tied with Tajikistan, I believe it is.
Women are not activists, and I mean on the right and the left, in the way that they should be. They’ve got to step up to the plate. But more it’s another cycle where the notion of expanding rights, which to me the founders supported from the inception on the right and the left, is a good thing in a democracy, and any time there is that fear of losing power and you watch certain groups try and close off voting rights, close off women’s rights to protect and insulate the power that they hold, it’s a struggle, it’s a battle.
This is cyclical, but we’ve got to understand that sharing expanding rights is a democratic principle as a democracy, and we can’t take them for granted. We’ve got to fight the fight generation after generation.
Tavis: The book is called “Patriot Acts: What Americans Must Do to Save the Republic,” written by award-winning author Catherine Crier. Catherine, always good to be in a conversation with you. You make me think, and I thank you for that.
Crier: Oh, thank you, sir.
Tavis: Good to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.