Sam Waterston wants money out of politics: an interview with the legendary actor and activist

click to enlarge Sam Waterston wants money out of politics: an interview with the legendary actor and activist
Dan McCarthy
Nick Carraway. Jack McCoy. Charlie Skinner. Countless people know and adore actor and Cambridge, Massachusetts native Sam Waterston for the characters he’s played on screen. What’s less known is his passion for and involvement with the forces pushing campaign finance reform to the top of America’s voting agenda.

Along with other Cantabrigians, like comedian Jimmy Tingle and Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, the latter of whom ran for president himself this cycle before dropping out, Waterston was in Manchester, New Hampshire last week railing against money in politics. Together they’re supporting the New Hampshire Rebellion, a grassroots group spreading news and information about the need for striking changes in our political pay-to-play system.

According to the Rebellion, “96 percent of citizens agree that money has too much influence in politics, yet 91 percent have little hope that it will change.” As a result, the group is dedicated to “restoring hope and [harnessing] energy to make reforming our democratic process possible, starting in New Hampshire.”

I sat with Waterston in our pop-up newsroom at the Shaskeen Pub in Manchester last week to talk about the presidential primaries and the voter’s cry for eradicating corruption. 

Dan McCarthy: For someone who hasn’t ever come across the New Hampshire Rebellion, what’s the elevator pitch? Why did you get involved, and what’s its importance in the election?

Sam Waterston: New Hampshire Rebellion is a grassroots organization dedicated to election reform. They have been known as the New Hampshire Rebellion only for a couple of years but they were really brought into existence by Granny D. Granny D is a woman from New Hampshire who walked all the way across the country more than 15 years ago advocating for campaign finance and election reform. If you go into the tent of New Hampshire Rebellion just down the street from here, there’s a rocking chair for her and a portrait on the wall. She was definitely the founding inspiration.

I came into this because I was involved in what I thought was a beautiful political idea, and it was very plain that what stifled it was the political system itself … So it never got heard. Whether or not it was a good idea or a bad one didn’t matter. The fact is the system itself prevented it from being heard. The idea is – the organization I’m associated with is called Every Voice – that every voice is supposed to be heard in a democracy.

So we were still valiantly fighting for this, and I was in Boston at the Kennedy School of Government giving a speech and Arnold Hiatt was giving a speech – the founding father of campaign finance reform – and he came up to me and sort of introduced me to the idea that what I was advocating for wasn’t going to work. I was not really ready to confess that to myself, but somewhere in the back of my mind I knew we were in trouble. So he suggested I get in contact with Nick Nyhart who is now the head of Every Voice, and I have been working with him ever since.

But I had never been here and seen the New Hampshire Rebellion in the flesh. And it is this stuff, the grassroots stuff that is changing things. It’s having an effect.

Do you think real change could happen?

I do and I think the reason is the states and cities and towns and counties are not waiting for things to move at the federal level. The 28th Amendment has been moved in many states already by ballot initiative. I believe there’s going to be one in New Hampshire, so if it passes one it’ll [be] the 17th state to make its voice heard about … the amendment that recognizes that there’s a difference between a corporation and a person. So yes, I think it’s moving. I think it’s happening now, and I don’t think it’s going to stop happening. But the key to it not stopping is the New Hampshire Rebellion and its kin. Because this is a popular movement or it’s nothing. The inertia [against campaign finance reform] in government circles is tremendous, so it’s going to be popular pressure that brings it.

The “angry voter” has been a central figure in the campaign narrative, leading to record turnouts so far. Will they be the tipping point that leads to reform?

As citizens we regard democracy as our own personal right, as a god-given right. But think of the advantage to government of knowing what the people are thinking and feeling. Because if the government doesn’t know what the people are thinking or feeling, it will for a time succeed by stifling dissent and the quiet acquiescence of the people. Then something will happen and the government will find out what it was they didn’t hear from the people [while] on the way to the guillotine. That’s a lousy way to run a country, alternating back and forth between acquiescence and revolution.

What you want is a free flow of information so government knows what’s happening with the people and that’s why democracy from the government's point of view, not from our divine right, but the government’s own point view is the best system a government can possibly have because they will know what’s going on before it’s too late. What we have today is a situation where money has interfered with that conversation in such a big way, that the people on the left and on the right are mad because they don’t feel heard. Reform is the essential thing, and I think if somebody, politicians on the right and left have already discovered this is a hot issue for people whose votes they’r trying to get. I think it’s been a surprise in this election cycle how strong that feeling is.

How feverishly have you been following the primaries?

I’m watching like everyone else is watching, and when the time comes for Connecticut I’ll have to choose.

This election has been marred by the running theme of extremism, that this is not only the wildest election in 100 years, but the most polarized.

I know, and this is the general view, that we’re at daggers drawn with each other. But I don’t experience that in my daily life, do you? Do you feel like we’re at daggers drawn? And do you feel that that’s exclusive to a self-contained or selective group? I don’t think so. But if you take this one issue of campaign finance reform, the very far left and far right of the people are united. The very far right thinks the only person you can trust is someone who self finances. The far left, small donations. But it’s the same concern, so why are we at loggerheads so much? I don’t see it.

Another weird development in this election for the Democrats has been this fight to prove who’s a progressive and what that really means. What gives?

Well until it became such a hot topic of debate in this election I thought it was just a replacement word for “liberal.” I mean, so much time and money was spent on debunking the word liberal, so rather than fight that fight, they just said pick another word. I think the definition that Hillary gave in the debate, until this election cycle, has been the definition we all accepted. The root of it is progress, moving forward. Which is borderline apolitical.

Biggest thing holding campaign finance reform back?

Often the central problem identified is cynicism, the idea that [campaign finance] can’t be changed … But if you think like I do, that this is central to the way our democracy can work and ought to work, it means you have to stay awake. And organized.

Seems like every election is framed as “this is the most important election ever."

I actually think that’s a true statement.

That this particular one is the most important?

That it’s always the most important election of all time. I do. Because it’s what determines what’s going to happen to a very large extent. One of the things all presidents say is you don’t determine what happens, events determine what happens to you. But it does color the future in really meaningful ways. And you get a chance every four years, so it’s [always] the most important event for our future. I’m now 75 years old. And the one thing that has been beaten into me so that now I understand it is that the future is always going to surprise you.  


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