Political journalist John Nichols

The pioneering political blogger unpacks Dollarocracy, the text in which he looks at how unbridled campaign spending defines U.S. politics.

John Nichols is The Nation's Washington, DC correspondent and has written the magazine's "Online Beat" column since 1999. He's also a regular contributor to The Progressive and In These Times and the associate editor of The Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, WI. Nichols was formerly the national correspondent for newspapers in Toledo and Pittsburgh and is co-founder of Free Press, an organization devoted to changing media and technology policies in ways that it believes will promote the public interest. He's authored/co-authored numerous books, including a best-selling biography on Vice President Dick Cheney and, his latest, Dollarocracy.


Tavis: Just in case you may not think big money dominates elections, consider this. The last election was the first $10 billion dollar election in the history of the nation. Taking a clear-eyed look into this is “The Nation” magazine’s Washington correspondent, John Nichols, who with his co-writer, Robert McChesney, has written a critique of our current practices called “Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America.”

John, first thanks for your work, and it’s an honor to have you on this program.

John Nichols: It is an honor to be on with somebody who has raised the issue of poverty when so few others do.

Tavis: I appreciate you saying that. Did Obama beat Romney or did money beat money?

Nichols: Money beat money. I wish I could tell you because we love the happy story, the glorious story of the little guy beating the big guy. But the fact of the matter is that Barack Obama and his supporters raised about $1.2 billion dollars, all the groups that backed him. Mitt Romney had about $1.3.

In fact, it was big money versus big money and Obama won, I would argue, on the basis of his own strengths. But it wasn’t some sort of people power beating money power.

Tavis: Let me go forward and then we’ll go back. The Supreme Court poised to make a decision that would just – depending on where you stand, from my perspective, at least. I suspect we’ll agree on this – poised perhaps to make a decision, a ruling, that would just further completely gut what is left of campaign finance as we know it, which ain’t much.

But if this decision goes in the way that many people think it will go, where do we go from there?

Nichols: Well, it’s good that you raise that question. We’re talking about a case called McCutcheon. We don’t have to get into all the details of it. But it would essentially allow wealthy people to give more than they’ve ever been able to give to candidates. And it’s important to understand it in perspective. McCutcheon would allow those wealthy people to, in a public way, give more money.

But the fact is, they’re giving that money now through so-called independent expenditures and dark money vehicles. So all it would do would be to systematize it, make it more regimented.

But the truth of the matter is, the barn door is already open. That money is flowing in. If the McCutcheon ruling comes down, it will be that much easier for them to do it, but we should not lie to ourselves. Our politics are now dominated by the dollar and that dollar sets the agenda. Now let them do it a little more easily, so be it.

But that’s really just the cleanup after the fight. We lost some fights in Citizens United. We lost fights all the way back to Buckley v. Valeo, a case in the 70s. And we have to understand is, until we begin to address this fundamental issue, that money flowing into our politics, we’re not gonna get our politics back.

Tavis: Why are we losing these fights?

Nichols: We lose these fights because money is well organized and that’s a simple reality. If you have a great deal of wealth, whether you’re a good person or a bad person, you have the ability to pave over a lot of things, to make it all work well.

And one of the things that money understood back in the late 60s, early 1970s, is civil rights and voting rights was really starting to expand, that if money power didn’t organize, the people might vote for a system that was a little fairer, that was a little more just. So they, frankly, started to pump the money into lobbying, pump the money into politics. They began to knock down the barriers, threw money in politics so that they could flow it in in all sorts of different ways.

And we’ve really seen a 40-year process in this country of money moving into politics. Now it so dominates from the presidential level down to the local city council level that we end up in a situation where the issues you talk about so much, an issue like poverty, is pushed to the side.

And we end up in a situation where in Washington, D.C., the capital of the wealthiest nation in the world, everybody’s saying, oh, yes, we can go to war in Syria, we can go bail out a bank, but we just don’t have enough money for people on food stamps. That’s dollarocracy. That’s where the money power shaped the debate, not the vote shaping the debate.

Tavis: I’m not naive, John, in asking this question, but help me understand then if money controls everything, if everything and everybody is up for sale, and if you don’t have the money to participate in the bidding process, then how do you exercise whatever agency we are supposed to have in a democracy?

Nichols: Well, that’s where it gets very difficult, isn’t it? Because at the end of the day, we do have that vote. And don’t under-estimate it. We still elect great people and honest people to Congress.

Bernie Sanders writes the introduction to our book and Bernie Sanders is a guy who I think, you know, goes against both parties a lot. And there are Republicans who are honorable players who go against their own party at times. So this is not about parties and this is not about candidates.

But the core question you ask, this is the scary part. That agenda is being set. We have such a narrow debate in this country. If we want to change it, we can’t just look for the perfect candidate. We can’t just look for the perfect party.

What we have to do is start to make structural reforms and we have to get serious about it and to say we’re going to shape a democracy where the vote matters more than the dollar. Because as long as the dollar matters more, we’re going to have debates about Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid cuts forever because they want that money.

Tavis: But those structural changes have to be brought about by elected officials that we send to Washington. And if you can’t get in the game, I mean, you’re right. We do send good people to Washington, but apparently…

Nichols: Not enough.

Tavis: Exactly. I was about to say that [laugh]. Apparently, not enough. So, again, I still come back to – I’m with you. I’m with you on everything you’re saying here. I’m just trying to figure out how the everyday American, how our everyday fellow citizens, exercise their agency to do anything about this when everything is about money.

Nichols: I love you going right there because that’s exactly where we – we’ve been across the country talking about this book, union halls, churches, universities, talking to wealthy people, poor people. The one thing is, by and large, when we go in a room, we never hear anybody who disagrees with the diagnosis and we never hear anybody who disagrees with the cure.

But what we hear a lot of people say is we don’t know how to apply the cure. We don’t know how to do it. Here’s the answer. It’s already happening and this is the important thing to understand. We’re going to need to do some constitutional amendments in this country. We’re going to have to…

Tavis: Whoa, whoa, you just shook the whole conversation with that.

Nichols: No, we didn’t, brother.

Tavis: Do you know what it takes to get a constitutional amendment passed?

Nichols: Yes, I do.

Tavis: Two-thirds of everything [laugh].

Nichols: Do you not know something? Do you wanna know something? It’s impossible. We know the Constitution’s written in stone, handed down to Michele Bachmann. We understand that [laugh].

But the fact of the matter is, somehow along the way, we’ve amended it 27 times. You know what we amended it to do? We amended it to say that African Americans have a right to vote after the Civil War. We amended it to say women have a right to vote.

Tavis: That’s true.

Nichols: We amended it to get rid of the poll tax. We amended it to give 18 to 21-year-olds the vote. We have amended it again and again and again to make a democracy change in this country. But now at this critical moment in our lives when we’ve really expanded the franchise out, but then the money power’s in there so much, we’re saying, oh, no, now it’s too hard to amend.

I’m sorry. In 1910 when we had – 1910, 1911 – the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, we had children working in mills. We had all these barriers. Well, in those days, women couldn’t vote, we couldn’t elect our Senate, we couldn’t tax big corporations.

By 1920, those immigrants, those low-wage workers, those poor people had risen up and built movements that got women the vote, that got Senate to be elected, that got us a tax system that allowed us to tax the wealthy and tax corporations. If our ancestors could do that, if our grandparents could do that, who are we to say that we’re not their equal?

Tavis: For the sake of argument, just because I love you and I want to push back on you…

Nichols: I love you.

Tavis: To get the best out of you, let me offer this as a retort, that Washington wasn’t as dysfunctional then as it is now. That’s my first response. I can do better than that, though. There weren’t people in Washington then, no matter how much they disagreed with the other side of the aisle, they weren’t prepared to shut the government down, you know, a couple of times in 20 years to make their point.

I could add a few more points to this list, but I’m just trying to get a sense of whether or not things have gotten so bad now and people are so recalcitrant in their inability to compromise and to debate and will shut the government down if they can’t have their way. I’m trying to see how a constitutional amendment works its way in that kind of framework.

Nichols: I accept the crisis.

Tavis: Okay.

Nichols: I believe the crisis sometimes is what we need to force us to actually rise up. And here’s an important thing to understand. You want to talk about dysfunction? First 60 years of this country, they didn’t allow slavery to be debated in Congress because they thought it would get too contentious. So we took the most fundamental issue of, you know, the early years of this country and we took it off – we wouldn’t even talk about it and finally we started talking about it.

Boy, that wasn’t easy. It was ugly. It was difficult. It was violent, but we did ultimately get the solutions. I think we figured out how to make reforms now with a little bit less violence. I hope so. But here’s where it’s important. You and I can talk about Washington and we know every bit of dysfunction in that city. But we also know that there are times when waves come across this country. They start in small towns and in cities far from Washington.

And if we had a media in this country that covered politics, didn’t cover politicians, but covered politics, including grassroots politics, every American, every viewer of this show, would know that 16 American states have already formally petitioned Congress to amend the Constitution to overturn the Citizens United ruling and get big money out of politics. 500 communities across this state have formally petitioned Congress to act.

Last year in November, the states of Colorado and Montana voted on whether to overturn Citizens United with a constitutional amendment. Colorado was an Obama state. Montana was a Romney state. And yet the one thing that was the same about them, they’re both over 70% voting for this.

The people want this change. I know it’s going to be hard, but my job is not to come here and tell people what they can’t do. Believe me, if that’s what people who cover politics and write about democracy, if that’s what we do is say, well, we can’t fix this thing, then we never will.

But the fact is, I don’t think that it was possible to overcome slavery. I don’t think it was possible to get women the vote. I don’t think it was possible to take an appointed Senate and make it elected. There’s a lot of things that weren’t possible until – and it was never the big guys. It was the little guys.

Tavis: It wasn’t possible until it was.

Nichols: That’s what I’m saying.

Tavis: Well, let me press again, though.

Nichols: All right.

Tavis: Because if you’re relying on the media, first of all, God help you.

Nichols: No, no, I’m not relying on…[laugh].

Tavis: Using the media as an example, let me just take that. If you’re relying on the media, what you do and what I do, what we hope our colleagues would do more of, if we’re relying on the media to cover politics and not politicians, if we rely – I’m involved in a campaign right now over the next four years to try to get the media to talk more about poverty. We will talk about everything but poverty in this country. You know, everybody’s struggling with it. We still won’t talk about it.

And I could offer a bunch of other things on that list that we won’t talk about it, but here’s the point I’m getting at, John. We won’t talk about it because two or three people own all the media now. You know what it comes back to? Bam! Dollarocracy. The dollar controls everything, including the politicians, including the media. So I ask again, how is it that we get traction on a conversation about…

Nichols: These issues.

Tavis: About fundamental changes if even the media can’t be relied upon? You know, years ago – of course, you’re the expert here. You’re the expert, not me. Years ago, we used to have a labor page in this country.

Nichols: Oh! Oh!

Tavis: We got business pages. Every paper has a business page. But have you seen a labor page lately?

Nichols: No.

Tavis: In any major American newspaper?

Nichols: No, no.

Tavis: But they had a business page. So I’m just trying to get a sense of how we level the playing field here.

Nichols: Let me tell you a little something. Do you ever ask yourself why there’s all this voter suppression? Why there’s all these efforts to flood the money in? Why all this stuff is happening? Did it ever occur to you that maybe we’re the majority? Maybe the great mass of people who really want a just and fair society are the majority? And the folks who don’t want it have to work incredibly hard to prevent that majority from being heard?

Tavis: Oh, it occurred to me. You know what occurred to me right after that? Is that they’re winning because they got the money and we don’t.

Nichols: They got the money, but you know what? In the gilded age 100 years ago, they had the money too.

Tavis: Right.

Nichols: They’ve had the money before. And the bottom line is that you and I are having a conversation right now. This is a piece of a much bigger whole and we’re going to build that conversation out and it’s going to be one on one. And we are going to have to break away from a media that doesn’t serve us.

We’re going to have to build some of our own media. It’s not easy. It is very, very hard. But I meet kids out there who work – you know, now a lot of journalists are like actors. They work a day job in a restaurant and then, at night, they go out and do some journalism.

I don’t want it to be that way, but this is what we’re doing. We’re building it back. We’re clawing this country back and, if we told ourselves it was going to be easy and we said, well, it just should work this way, the media should tell our story and make it all work, well, that would be great. But it never, ever was that way.

I’ll tell you this. I think that the American people are constantly starting to wake up to things. Do you know when our president suggested to us in August that we might want to get into another war in the Middle East, right? There was this incredible reaction. Members of Congress came back and said, “Our people just don’t this thing. They just don’t want it.”

And the media, of course, which never serves us well, at least in these cases, media says, “Well, the American people are war-weary” as if, oh, they love a good war, but, you know, it’s just they’re tired. They need a vacation, right? Wait until September. They’ll be ready for it. No, I think they were missing a letter there. I think the American people were war-wary. They learned. People learned over time.

The reason that there was such an outcry was they’ve seen the call for a war in the Middle East. They’ve seen it didn’t work and they were able to push the Congress of the United States and the president not to do this. And look at what diplomacy’s doing now.

What I’m telling you is, we have to always keep up with the evolution of the people and I will tell you, as I travel across this country, I am blown away by how passionate people are about getting their democracy back.

I have faith in them and I don’t want to – I’ll never tell them it’s easy. But what I will tell them is, we’re going to give you some information here about the crisis. We’re going to give you some ideas and we’re going to be with you as you try and fix this thing.

Tavis: We talked about this McCutcheon case earlier. The Supreme Court is going to rule on at some point, which may again further gut what is left of our campaign finance reforms. The RNC, the Republican National Committee, immediately came out in support of Mr. McCutcheon.

Nichols: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: So they are very clear where they come down on this.

Nichols: Our friend, Mitch McConnell, has filed a brief here.

Tavis: Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader, has filed a brief on behalf of – so it’s clear where Republicans are on this. They want that thing gutted. They want to be able to flood more money to candidates all across the country.

I’ll come to Democrats in just a second. But if it’s not about parties, then give me some assessment of why Republicans are bending over backwards to support McCutcheon in this case.

Nichols: Well, I think the Republican Party, which was, remember, an incredibly honorable party, but my next book’s a history of the Republican Party and I’ve been spending so much time looking at how noble Republicans have been through the history of this republic, how Wendell Willkie pressured Franklin Roosevelt to be…

Tavis: And you’re not joking about it, but you’re being serious.

Nichols: I’m terribly serious. I’m deeply serious. How into the 1960s and 1970s, Republican mayors were the ones talking about the urban crisis, people like John Lindsay. You know, this is a party that has made, to my mind, a terrible compromise where they have decided that being exceptionally friendly to Wall Street, being exceptionally friendly to moneyed interests, will get them the resources that they need to push now a bunch of ideas that are not popular, genuinely unpopular ideas.

So they seek power with this immense amount of resources. They’re agenda-driven so much by Wall Street, so much by economic power, that’s it’s been reshaped away from even what they once were. And so, I think the compromise has been made at the upper level, but can I tell you one hopeful thing?

Tavis: Sure.

Nichols: This is pretty cool. When the state of Maine voted on urging Congress to overturn Citizens United, get big money out of politics, do a constitutional amendment, the main legislature, 30 Republicans, joined the Democrats to vote for that. So out there in America, there are a lot of Republicans who get that what we’ve got is not a functional system.

I believe there are honest Conservatives and honest Republicans in this country who would like to have a debate with me because I’m pretty much on the left. And they think they could beat me in an honest debate and they’re willing to do it.

My problem with the Republican Party is, I think too much of its leadership doesn’t want that honest debate. What they want is an overwhelming money advantage, which they do get in a lot of races, which would allow them to win even where by any real measure they would probably lose.

Tavis: Is money all that important in the end? I’m asking because even though we’re talking about dollarocracy, it seems to me – pardon my English. There ain’t but so many radio spots you can buy. There ain’t but so many TV commercials you can buy. At some point, does money ultimately make that big a difference?

I’m asking because if the Republicans think it’s just about more money, more money, more money, and it’s not about ideas, if you keep turning off Hispanics and you never get serious about making a real play for African Americans, etc., etc., etc., I mean, at some point, it ain’t about the money. You can be sitting on a pile of cash.

Nichols: Yeah.

Tavis: But if your ideas are so out of step with America, then – I mean, my question is, is money all that?

Nichols: No, money’s not all that. But money allows you to do a lot of technical stuff that we don’t talk about much. Money allows you to flood tens of millions of dollars into gerrymandering, to actually buy computers that will allow you to draw districts so carefully…

Tavis: Well, these are the real problems, gerrymandering and redistricting…

Nichols: Right, that’s another issue. That creates uncompetitive elections. Money allows you to message out not just in a campaign, but to message out the idea that, oh, we’ve got voter fraud in this country and somehow we’ve got all these voter ID laws. And money allows you to do a lot of structural stuff.

But here’s the final thing that money does, and this is the most important thing. We write about this a lot in the book. Campaign ads today, which are in many key races as much as 90% of them are negative ads. Campaign ads are voter suppression. So we often look at money and we say, well, you know, is all that money going to elect you?

No, but what that money might let you do is to cause a substantial number of your opponent’s supporters to stand down, to not vote. Do you understand? In Scandinavia, in Norway, just a couple of weeks ago, they had an election. They had an 82% turn out. They were talking publicly. They said, well, our turnout’s getting a little low. That’s troublesome.

In Germany, they had an election a couple of weeks ago. Said it was one of the most boring elections in the history of Germany. 72% turnout. In the United States, we had about 52 or 53% of our voting age population, poll population, vote in 2012. What’s up here? Why is our turnout so dramatically low? Why in statewide races and in local races do you have turnout go down into the 30s, into the 20s?

Well, the answer to that is we flood people with messages that politics is ugly, that everybody’s a bad player, all sides. And at the end of the day, a lot of people opt out and that’s the power of money. We have in a dollarocracy a situation where, if all else fails, we just tell people to give up on it, and negative ads do that.

Tavis: So we just basically – you depress the electorate.

Nichols: Until you get down to the handful of people who actually care and then, if you organize a Tea Party, you organize – you know what I mean? You can then trump.

Tavis: All right. I take that. That’s depressing, but I take your point and it works, apparently. So now to the Democrats. I recall so vividly having as a guest on this program the former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, one of the most progressive members that Congress has ever seen. I love Russ Feingold, out of Wisconsin, of course, as you know.

I remember having Russ Feingold on this show because he was so, so, so disappointed as I was, as were others, when Barack Obama at first said he wasn’t going to take the money and then did a 180 and said, well, I am going to take it.

What was so sad about that, with all respect to the president, he comes out in the State of the Union address, as you recall, and slams the Supreme Court for Citizens United while they’re sitting on the front row in the well of Congress.

Nichols: No, I like…

Tavis: Remember this? Samuel Alito about had a heart attack. He almost…

Nichols: He sits there and he mumbles.

Tavis: Yeah, you could see Alito about going into full cardiac arrest because the president is slamming the Supreme Court while they’re sitting right in front of him at his State of the Union address. So he slams them for Citizens United, but then, you know, his campaign says “But these are the rules and, if these are the rules, we know we weren’t going to take the money, but if these are the rules, we’re going to have to take this outside cash ’cause we want to be competitive with Romney.”

And then, back to your point, Romney ends up at $1.3 billion, Obama ends at $1.2, money ends up beating money. Here’s my point. Feingold was like, “Mr. President, don’t do this.” He implored the president publicly not to do that 180. The Obama people will tell you, and they told me this in 2007. They said it again in advance of 2012.

What we have to do is win first and, once we win and we get in, then we can get serious about pushing real campaign finance reform. That was their strategy. We got to get in first. If we don’t win, if we don’t play the game by these rules, we can’t get in. If we’re not in, we can’t change the rules.

That argument doesn’t seem to be holding up for me. They’re in now and I don’t see any real talk about campaign finance reform.

Nichols: Well, and there really should be. I mean, I’ll tell you, as I watched those whole government shutdown, all this crisis, I so wanted my president to go on television and say, “Let’s step back and understand why this is taking place. This is taking place because of gerrymandering, because we’ve created a Republican Caucus made up of members who never fear November elections.

They only fear their primary, so that’s going to err them right, not left because of the money that flows in, the ability of a handful of wealthy people to make even the most powerful members of Congress frightened, especially of a primary challenge and things of that nature.”

I wish the president would do more of that, but I have to tell you that, if you’re looking for the Democratic Party to be the pure party that’s going to clean this thing up, my answer is no. My answer is no. Democrats are better on the issue. The president is better on the issue.

The president has said, as the President of the United States, that he thinks a constitutional amendment may be necessary to overturn Citizens United. I give him immense credit for that. The Democratic platform has addressed…

Tavis: But where’s the leadership on this?

Nichols: But this is what I’m telling you. The language is better, but the problem is this. The problem is this, that when you get into that horrible calculus of, you know, we’re going to be overwhelmed by the money, we got to raise our money or we’re going to get overwhelmed.

Well, that never ends because the dollarocracy never stops. It doesn’t finish with Election Day and so there’s always like, oh, we raised the money. We won this election. But we can’t stop raising it ’cause the next election’s just down the line.

Tavis: There’s no distinction these days between campaigning and governing.

Nichols: That’s what I’m saying.

Tavis: The line’s never broken. Three quick ways we fix this. One…

Nichols: Number one, a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote and right to have that vote counted. And I know you say constitutional amendments are hard. I agree with you, but I’d like to go have that debate. Why don’t we put anybody on the show with Tavis Smiley and have them come on a debate against the right to vote? So you begin with the vote. Let’s make it sacrosanct.

Number two, we have got to get this money out of our politics. We cannot lie to ourselves anymore. So we do need a constitutional amendment that says money is not speech, corporations are not people and we the citizens of this country have a right to organize elections where the vote matters more than the dollar.

And finally, at the end of that, what we need to do is connect those movements. We need to connect those movements for that change to all the movements that we care about. And we need to say to everybody, if you care about poverty, I want that to be your first issue. But I want your second issue to be political reform. If you care about war, I want that to be your first issue. But I want your second issue political reform.

We need to get this high on the agenda of everyone who cares about the future of this country because that’s the way we overwhelm Washington.

Tavis: “Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America” by John Nichols, our guest tonight, his co-author, Robert W. McChesney. John, thanks for your brilliant work, and it’s an honor to have you on the program.

Nichols: It’s an honor to be with you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: October 28, 2013 at 12:24 pm