Pay2Play is a newly released and surprisingly optimistic documentary by filmmaker John Wellington Ennis about the influence of money in politics. It begins with Ennis interviewing Democratic grass roots candidates in Ohio during the 2010 election: Surya Yalamanchili who ran against Mean Jean Schmidt and Justin Coussoule who ran against John Boehner. Of course they were both handily defeated in 2010, one of the biggest wave elections in modern history.
The thought lept to my cynical mind that the only reason either of these candidates was able to garner the Democratic nomination was because the party anticipated losing its shirt in 2010 and basically conceded both of those seats. But their audaciousness of spirit reflects both the charm and the optimism of this film. As the Nation’s John Nichols tells Ennis:
You know what makes us act in the best of ways? It’s our naivete and our innocence. It’s not our cynicism. If you were really cynical you’d say ‘well, there’s nothing we can do about that. That’s money, that’s power.’ But if you still have an ability to be shocked, to say ‘this is entirely unacceptable, I want to expose this. I’ve found out people are legislating in my name but without my consent. This is destroying democracy itself. I as a citizen object. And I’m going to call people, I’m going to tell them, and I’m going to believe that when we tell people what’s going on, that just shining a light of day on it will begin a process of change.’
The sad story of the influence of money in politics is a long and sordid one, and Pay2Play does not till a lot of new ground, though what it does cover it covers well. The film tells a very clear and easily understandable tale of how recent Supreme Court decisions from Citizens United through McCutcheon and Hobby Lobby have all contributed to an ever-worsening problem, and connects the thread of Occupy Wall Street as a mass movement rising up largely in opposition.
I once sat down with a friend of mine who is a Congressional staffer and he described to me how the entire system worked to shift influence over Congress from the voters to big money interests. It included not only campaign contributions to elected officials but also the promise of lucrative sinecures after they left Congress (see: Cantor, Eric), the use of lobbists basically as unpaid staff, the ever popular revolving door, gerrymandering and the unchallenged domination of the two largest political parties, and and the fact that members of Congress basically don’t see the people who are spreading money around as pariahs but rather as cohorts and friends. Sometimes it all seems overwhelming.
Which is why it was so delightful to see Ennis draw together his friends and fellow artists to take over a Los Angeles intersection during a May Day parade and cover it with a big Monopoly board. It’s a joyous, hopeful and inspirational statement, especially coming as it does at the end of the movie which could have been a big downer — but isn’t.
People who try to explain the need for campaign finance reform often get too weedy and assume everyone is coming at the subject with the knowledge base of a political junkie (she says looking in the mirror), and forget that change can happen at such a lightening fast pace that most people miss the details and wind up with little more than a vague feeling of unease. The harder and much more important job is to tell a complex tale in a straight-forward, compelling and easy to understand way. Which Pay2Play does beautifully.
Congress is never going to reign itself in until there is a much more broad public understanding of the problem, and a much stronger desire to see change. And that will mean, at the very least, voting enough of the bums out that it scares the rest of them into action. People are still largely unwilling to do that, but as they learn more we can only hope they will be moved to take action.
So if you have friends, relatives, acquaintances, co-workers or simply no-nothing blowhards at the water cooler who need an education on the subject of money in politics, point them in the direction of Pay2Play. They will come away more informed, but perhaps more importantly, with the conviction that they can make a difference.
Here is the Pay2Play website where you can check for screenings in your area