Who cares about Big Money & Politics?
This past week at BRIC House we had a live televised Town Hall on Big Money & Politics, arguably one of the biggest threats to American democracy. We booked a panel of A-list New York political figures like Zephyr Teachout, the 2014 Gubernatorial candidate, and NYC Public Advocate Leticia James. We marketed the hell out of it, yet struggled to get people to come. Compared to previous Town Halls, we had so much less participation. So what gives? If money and politics are at the heart of so many issues facing our cities today, why is it so hard to get people to care?
Here’s the backstory on our BRIC Town Hall series: It was last fall, and the nation was struggling with issues of race and policing coming out of Ferguson and Eric Garner. We, on the Brooklyn Independent Media team asked ourselves: how how we could best contribute to this conversation through media and community engagement? Our #Bheard Town Hall series was born. The goal was to use our BRIC theater and televised capabilities to create live events, that would tackle complex and timely social issues, invite the community at large, and bring greater understanding through a Town Hall format and subsequent call to action.
Our first Town Hall was Race, Policing and Civil Rights and it was explosive, with 300 + people in the room. Then came Brooklyn for Sale: The Price of Gentrification and 600 RSVPs showed that this issue was hitting home.
In doing these Town Halls we started noticing a thread running through them — racial, economic and political inequality. And, again and again, our panelists were identifying a common root cause behind all of these issues — policies compromised by the influence of wealth and corporate interests.
“If you want the voice of everyday New Yorkers, individuals who care about the crisis in affordable housing and community policing… then we have to remove the influence of big money, because right now they have hijacked our government”
-NYC Public Advocate Leticia James
From the get go we had problems. Eyes glazed over as we announced to staff the topic of our next Town Hall. It wasn’t resonating with our host. We couldn’t figure out how to name the thing. What was our elevator pitch? Was this more advocacy event than Town Hall? It was getting increasingly complicated.
We booked our first panelist, Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham law professor who ran for governor of New York last year against Andrew Cuomo. She ran on this issue of big money & politics and the corruption that ensues, gaining over 30% of the vote. We were quick to learn that there is no one better at breaking down how big money’s influence on politics affects us all.
“You can’t talk about gentrification without talking about money and politics, because look at the power of a handful of real estate interests who have hijacked our city…If you think Big Money and Politics isn’t affecting you, it’s affecting you so much you can’t even see it:”
Zephyr Teachout-Fordham Law Professor and Former NYC Gubernatorial Candidate
Yet as we sat down in marketing meetings, we got stuck for hours trying to figure how to sell this thing and engage people on this issue. We tried making the issue cool by producing a music video about it. RSVPs trickled in. We found a comedian, Ted Alexandro, who was also a political activist. Maybe he could connect the dots for people and engage them? A couple more RSVPs trickled in.
Our usually eager social media team balked at applying a digital social media strategy to this issue, “I just don’t get how it affects me?” How were we going to create a dialogue on social media, when we couldn’t engage our own staff? We thought of flat out posing the question on social “if you could sell your vote how much would you charge?” Nah, felt too dirty. How about “If you had money to influence politics what would you use it for? Job creation? Affordable housing? Free healthcare?” This video promo felt closer to what we going for. A couple more RSVP’s trickled in.
“There are so many politically engaged young people who will organize, who will march, who will give up a big money job to do social work or work at a non-profit and then if you ask them will you run for office they say I’m not going to do that that’s corrupt.”
-Zephyr Teachout-Fordham Law Professor and Former NYC Gubernatorial Candidate
Big Money & Politics: Can Your Voice Count? Town Hall happened this past week. It wasn’t explosive, but it was excellent and eye-opening and important. In the end, we had around 150 people in the room, our lowest turnout for a BRIC Town Hall. Our internal journey to engage people seemed to mirror the integral problem presented by the panelists that night: either people are so disillusioned by politics that they’re choosing to turn away OR they are not informed, and therefore don’t realize how it affects them. The issue is compounded by the fact that it’s not easy for the working person to vote, that the private campaign finance system enables political corruption, and that most of the country is under-educated on the scope of the issue.
Al Vann-Former NY Assemblyman & Councilman
But the story on how to solve this issue is timely, and it can be a compelling as well. Days after our Town Hall, Hillary Clinton kicked off her 2016 presidential campaign with getting big money out of politics as a top priority. The media seemed to collectively snort at this, but as Nick Confessore in the NY Times wrote “Mrs. Clinton’s decision to address the issue so early in her campaign may reflect, in part, the pressure she feels from a new cohort of activists who are urging her to address not just inequality of wealth, but also the inequality of political power it is intertwined with.”
In the final call to action portion of the Town Hall, it’s this activism that each and every panelist pointed to as the way out of this inequality mess. Activism, organization and pressure is essential. For panelist Doug Henwood it’s about installing fear “Elites won’t grant concession until they are scared. Elites need to get scared.” Zephyr Teachout’s all about changing the system “Pass public financing of elections, break up the banks and don’t give up hope!” and Al Vann sees the people leading the way “The antidote to big money is an organized and informed citizenry”
So, why is big money & politics such a sleeper subject and what is the way out of the woods? Because that’s what we are talking about when we talk about money and politics: A political system that has become corrupted by the enormous financial pressures of fundraising and campaign finance, the result of which impacts every single citizen living in Brooklyn and beyond. We’ve heard from our panelists, we’ve heard from the Brooklynites who joined us that night in our ballroom and we’ve heard from those who watched online and tweeted their opinions. Now, we’d like to hear from you: What will make people care about the impact of money and politics? What is the antidote to big money? It’s time for your voice to #BHeard.