Bill Maher deplores the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions and the millions of dollars of campaign funding that go with it. He is outraged that corporations and wealthy individuals can exert such outsized influence over national and local elections and he isn’t shy about saying so. But in an ironic twist pointed out by Richard Pildes, Maher, through his HBO show Real Time, may just have become the poster child for supporters of the Court’s defense of free political speech. In a recurring segment launched recently called “Flip a District” Maher is putting the full force of his celebrity and HBO’s money behind an effort to unseat congresspeople who he deems unfit for office.
Each week two representatives are chosen to be included in an NCAA tournament style “tweet 16” of bad legislative apples who will be widdled down to one targeted candidate. Thus far, six slots in the “tweet 16” have been filled, and I’m sure we are all shocked to discover that all six are Republicans. Maher is surely aware of the irony of his outside district, corporate political messaging. He is taking a tongue in cheek, if you can’t beat em join em approach. But his primary objection to the court’s recent decisions is that they allow money to trump the will of the voters. The only plausible excuse for Maher’s decision to use the considerable resources of HBO to unseat elected officials is that he is somehow “restoring the balance”. That his campaign expenditures will offset the big corporate money that thwarts the will of the voters, that his millions are on the side of the angels.
But if Maher is to be taken at his word regarding his preference that the voters of a district, rather than interested outside parties should decide who represents them, he is taking a curious approach. Clearly he doesn’t like these GOP candidates. Fair enough. But by his own logic his distaste for these congressmen is no different than the Koch brothers’ or Crossroads GPS’ distaste for any number of Democrats in congress. If Maher really wants to empower constituents to take back the electoral reins he believes the Robert’s court ripped from them he might start by simply visiting his targeted districts and using his show to give voice to those constituents. In that spirit, I’d like to invite Maher to come spend a day in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge.
One of Maher’s first targets in “Flip a District” was embattled New York representative Michael Grimm who represents Staten Island and parts of South Brooklyn. Grimm was recently indicted on charges related to under the table payments to employees at a restaurant he once co owned. He is also under investigation for campaign finance violations, and was roundly criticized for his rather aggressive treatment of a local New York reporter after the State of the Union address. In short, Grimm looks vulnerable, he is opposed by popular city council member Dominic Rechia and Democrats are salivating over the chance to take the seat.
But let’s remember, Maher’s intent here is not to impose his will on the voters in New York’s 11th district, but to ensure that their preferences are honored. But what are those preferences? Why do the voters in the 11th defy the monolithic power of the Democratic party in the Big Apple? Why didn’t they vote for progressive mayor Bill Deblasio? Who are these people, and does Bill Maher really care?
I moved to Bay Ridge three years ago, but I knew it immediately, instinctively actually. Bay Ridge is the spitting image of the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood I grew up in. Irish and Italian working class sprinkled with newly arrived immigrants, a lot of cops and fireman, American flags all over the place, and a solid distrust of the big wigs “downtown”. Most of New York City is a very top bottom affair, the kind of Democratic coalition that Fred Siegel so aptly describes in his brilliant new book “The Revolt Against the Masses.” The wealthy, liberal, elite, happy with the status quo, beg for more taxes while the poorest take that revenue to continue their subsistence. But this is not how Bay Ridge, and its surrounding South Brooklyn neighborhoods operate. In South Brooklyn seemingly everybody is “in business”. My neighbors have small van operations, or orange juice routes or do freelance bookkeeping, they want low taxes and a friendly regulatory environment. Some of them do quite well, drive fancy cars, but there aren’t many billionaires, and no helicopters land here.
Michael Grimm was type cast to represent the 11th district. An ex marine, FBI agent and businessman, he presents the populist, socially moderate vision of the modern Republican that big northeastern cities require. There are very few tea party rallies in Brooklyn. Having won a primary in 2010 as the conservative alternative to the establishment candidate, Grimm faces no fear of a right wing primary challenger because he is pretty much as right wing as Brooklyn and Staten Island gets. If Bill Maher took a walk down 5th avenue, headed toward the Verrazano bridge, he would see Grimm’s posters in storefronts the whole way, and those storefronts would not be the Starbucks and Chipotle chains that pepper most of New York City but mom and pop stores, many multi generational that are the neighborhood’s engine.
What Maher would learn very quickly in Bay Ridge is that some people, even in New York City, are Republicans for legitimate reasons. We aren’t being duped by corporate oligarchs, we aren’t giving in to a latent white supremicism, rather we are acting on what we believe to be in the best interest of our community and nation. Grimm won in 2010 on a campaign centered on sensible tax policies that don’t crush small business. That might not sound like a big deal to the wealthy denizens of the Upper West Side and Park Slope, or the impoverished in Bed Stuy and East New York, or for that matter to millionaire TV personalities, but to the people in South Brooklyn it means a lot. It can mean the difference between being in or out of business. In Bay Ridge raising the minimum wage is not an esoteric debate over fairness and social mobility, its a threat to the budget lines of many small businesses operating on tiny margins.
It may be that such concerns are legitimately outweighed by the progressive agenda constantly propagated by the entertainment media. It may be that conservatives huddled in enclaves of ultra-liberal cities are missing the forrest for the trees. Safe streets and business friendly tax environments may be selfish small potatoes compared to the existential threats of global warming, income inequality and privately controlled health care. But nobody in Bay Ridge is sheltered from progressive political ideas. We get the same channels that Democrats get, including HBO. But, unlike groups of private individuals who want to effect governmental change, nobody wants to take away Bill Maher’s political platform, I mean hey, he’s a funny guy.
Entertainment media’s opposition to the Citizen’s United decision has always rung a bit hollow. After all Maher has, for years, used an enormous, national, corporate platform to advocate for positions and candidates. Shows like Real Time, The Daily Show and the Colbert Report exist in the blind spot of liberal outrage over corporate politicking. The justification for this blind spot is that shows such as these are not primarily political or partisan, they are news-ish. Maher isn’t coordinating messaging with the DNC, he’s acting like a journalist, just with more laughs. But Maher can’t have it both ways. If what separates his political spending from the Koch brothers’ is journalistic integrity then he has the responsibility to dig deeper than his own political preferences when exerting political force.
That’s where a visit to Bay Ridge comes in. Don’t just sit in your exalted televisual pulpit and pronounce our electoral choices to be unacceptable, come talk to us. It’s not that you don’t have the right to say whatever you want about politics on your show, It’s that you somehow think that other’s don’t have the same right to present political messages on television. Obviously most conservatives disagree with you on this. Supporters of Citizens United fear neither your show’s nor any Super Pac’s ability to buy elections. Rather, we have faith that voters understand their own interests and the country’s, that they make decisions based on policies and personalities, not how many ads or TV shows they see.
So come on down to Bay Ridge Bill, it will be a great time, you can have a chicken parm at Frank and Eddie’s or a beer at Three Jolly Pigeons, you can find out why people here vote the way they do. If you really want elections decided by the voters and not corporate elites (like the guys who sign your checks) then amplify our voices. But, if not, thats ok too. If your preference is to spend millions of dollars in outside money through your show to slam elected officials, so be it. Conservatives might abhor your efforts, but they and the Roberts Court will vigorously defend your right to engage in them.