Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes

February 16, 2015


Our current election system is broken. Huge corporations, SuperPACs and wealthy individuals are pushing their own agendas by pouring huge amounts of money into the campaigns of like-minded politicians. It’s creating a government of elected officials focused on appeasing these donors, and making them even richer, while the average citizen suffers.

Enter filmmaker John Wellington Ennis and his documentary Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes. It shines a spotlight on the injustices of our election process, using the game of Monopoly as a metaphor, and the insights from a wide range of political and legal experts. Entertaining, informative and inspiring, this is one scary movie worth watching. We spoke with Ennis in an exclusive interview to find out why the system is broken and what can be done to fix it.

For those not familiar with your film, Pay 2 Play, what is the primary message you’re trying to convey?

It’s not about Left versus Right; it’s about Insiders versus Outsiders. While we have a good system in principle, the cost of running for office has given rise to a “Pay-to-Play” system, wherein major donors are repaid for their contributions, not by the candidates themselves, but through public funds (our taxes). Spending money on politicians has become the best return on investment in business—up to 22,000% back, sometimes even more.

What inspired you to make this film?

While I was in Ohio working on a documentary about making sure everybody’s votes were counted in elections, it occurred to me that the bigger issue is how the names get on those ballots in the first place. What stands in the way of getting the kind of candidates we would want to see in office? The cost of running for office is certainly a huge barrier, but if I were being thorough, it probably isn’t the only obstacle I’d find. That led me to start to illustrate the larger Pay-to-Play system and how it disenfranchises citizens’ voices in our democracy.

Judging by the name, Citizens United sounds like a pretty good thing. Can you tell us what it means for people like you and me?

The idea of citizens uniting is a nice thing, but the group that calls itself Citizens United is actually the opposite—they are few, and they thrive in divisive politics. Founded by the co-creator of the infamous “Willie Horton” ad, the group puts out home videos celebrating right-wing heroes like Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, and others attacking Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Occupy Wall Street or the hippie generation. It was when Citizens United ran TV ads for their release, Hillary: The Movie, that a legal conflict first arose, because the time and place they ran those ads was New Hampshire during the 2008 Democratic primary. The ads served as attack ads, which their 501(c)(4) status prohibited by FEC law.

But what started as a relatively minor campaign violation escalated quickly once it reached the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts took a highly unusual interest in the case; after first hearing arguments, he instructed both sides to come back with a much bigger debate over the role of corporate spending in elections in general. For a judge to pose an entirely different question than the one the court was presented with is of dubious ethical integrity. Following his lead, the plaintiff, Citizens United, presented the argument Roberts wanted to hear, serving as a springboard for a sweeping ruling that upended decades of campaign finance law.

The court ruled in Citizens United vs. F.E.C. that the First Amendment covered corporations, and that spending in elections is a form of “free speech” as protected in the First Amendment, so therefore any limit on corporate spending in elections was unconstitutional. Kind of a stretch, if you ask me or most legal scholars.

In your film, you took over a city intersection with a giant version of Monopoly. Can you tell us a bit about the symbolism behind this?

Our story unfolds around a Monopoly board with the squares representing different aspects of the Pay-to-Play system. We made a street art version of this board and unveiled it during a May Day march. This sequence builds on the themes of the film up to that point—the power of protest, the impact of street art, the symbolism of Monopoly, the way one person can use their voice to reach many. It’s a fun moment that embodies People Power.

All of this corruption, what is the cost to our nation and each of us as individuals?

It’s not like these multinational corporations are spending fortunes in our elections for the betterment of society. They do it for laws written in their favor, or no-bid government contracts, or tax breaks that earn that company billions in return for millions. Our leaders have become reliant on a corporate class, and we the People need to reclaim the electoral process so that elected officials prioritize their constituents over corporate PACs. The cost is immeasurable to all of us—how can we have a national deficit when the biggest companies, like G.E., pay no taxes even when they make a trillion dollars? How can anyone call some struggling individual on public aid a freeloader, when Big Business can routinely lobby their way out of paying their share and use off-shore tax havens?

If all these corporate interest groups have lobbyists, then who is lobbying for ordinary citizens?

“Where’s my lobbyist?” is a question I pose in the film. Lobbying our representatives is a right guaranteed to us in the Constitution, the problem is only the well-heeled can afford a full-time lobbyist. Even then, the well-connected lobbyist charges even more. It’s a stage of our democracy that most don’t think about, but the efforts of “good government” groups have a huge impact for their size, and those groups depend on their membership and donations. Common Cause, Public Citizen and many other groups are cited in our film because it’s important to share their example and show the impact citizens can have. It’s affirming to see how much others care; it makes you want to become invested in keeping an open democratic process.

In terms of big money interests controlling politics, how does the U.S. compare to the rest of the world?

Pay-to-play is as old as empires. Corruption will always thrive in humans. We as an evolved society must continue to reform and build safeguards against corruption, and then stay vigilant. There are policies in other countries that do a great deal to empower public participation and representation—such as compulsory voting, public financing, free airtime for candidates and a limited window of time for campaigning.

But it matters the most to me in the U.S., because this country has such an enormous impact on the rest of the world. From its environmental footprint to its global trade standards to its military practices, all of these are guided by Pay-to-Play, which is why confronting this issue is so critical.

What sort of reforms do you think it will take to change things?

Our film outlines what we call the Fix Six Solutions: 1) Public financing for campaigns, 2) Disclosure of donors and spending, 3) Free airtime for candidates, 4) End gerrymandering, which is manipulative re-districting, 5) Compulsory voting to require all citizens to participate in elections, like jury duty, and 6) A Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, affirming that money is not people and corporations are not people.

What potential issues or roadblocks to reform do you see on the horizon?

Obviously the spending in elections is out of control, with the Koch Brothers now spending as much as either political party in the upcoming elections. This Supreme Court seems poised to chip away at existing campaign finance law that was put in place by generations of reformers. The odor of corruption is overpowering—so overpowering, it will in time compel everyone to call out the stench.

Politicians are great at showing up to lead parades that have already started. We need to create that parade so the Clean Money movement becomes a safe bet for leaders to get elected, no matter how much billionaires want to waste their money trying to get even richer.

What can ordinary citizens do to Get the Dough Out of Politics?

There are so many ways to make a difference. No one should ever feel like they are powerless. In fact, your voice carries further than you might think. In Pay 2 Play, we showcase many people making a difference: from outsiders running for office, to street artists raising awareness, journalists exposing important stories, to organizers taking on well-funded foes. I’m also partial to the Stamp Stampede as a way to raise awareness with the common person—using art on public surfaces is an invaluable tool for creating change.

Click here to find a Play 2 Play screening and related events near you.