In 'Captured,' Democratic Senator Decries Money's Role In Politics
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
During the Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had the same litmus test for any Supreme Court nominee - overturning Citizens United. That Supreme Court ruling allowed more corporate money in campaigns. And it's just one of the ways that Democrats argue corporations have taken over American politics. Corporate influence is a subject of a new book by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat. The book is called "Captured: The Corporate Infiltration Of American Democracy." Senator Whitehouse, thanks for being in the studio.
SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Great to be with you, Ari. Thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: You argue that American government is effectively held hostage and steered by corporate interests. And I wonder if you could begin by giving us a personal example from your career as a senator when you felt pressure from a specific corporation to do something that you felt was not in your constituents' interests.
WHITEHOUSE: It hasn't happened in that exact way. The observation that I would make is that before Citizens United, when I first got to the Senate, we had probably a solid handful Republican-sponsored climate change bills floating around. And...
SHAPIRO: Easy for you to put this on Republicans, but I'm wondering if you personally have felt pressure, even as a Democrat representing a liberal state like Rhode Island?
WHITEHOUSE: I can't think of a particular instance. You see things appear when you see home state problems with senators.
SHAPIRO: So a corn-growing state senator advocates for an ethanol subsidy.
SHAPIRO: Or a senator from a state with a financial industry advocates for something that might help banks.
SHAPIRO: Things like that.
SHAPIRO: But Rhode Island is pure.
WHITEHOUSE: Well, you know, we don't have a whole ton of big corporations who are located there to begin with. So maybe it's not so much that we're pure as we just have the good fortune of not having so much.
SHAPIRO: You describe $30 in corporate lobbying being spent for every $1 by anyone else. Can you just give us a sense of what that feels like being on the receiving end of that as a senator?
WHITEHOUSE: It means that people are constantly asking for your time.
SHAPIRO: And when you say people you mean...
WHITEHOUSE: I mean lobbyists representing different industries.
SHAPIRO: And you feel as though if you don't take those meetings, suddenly millions of dollars will be spent against you in your next campaign? Is there an implicit threat or what?
WHITEHOUSE: No, not really. I think it's a more steady pressure. It's a little bit like a tide that gently moves the whole system in a certain direction from all that pressure. And it's almost - if you're sailing in a tide, it's almost hard to know you're in a tide, but you are moving. And I think that's a little bit more what happens, except on some of the really big issues where the fossil fuel industry or the Wall Street folks say, cross us on this, and we are coming after you.
SHAPIRO: Do they say that explicitly? Or is it - I mean, how is that communicated?
WHITEHOUSE: it's communicated by, say, Bob Inglis - very conservative congressman who actually had kind of an epiphany on climate change getting wiped out by the fossil fuel industry in his next primary. The verb to be Inglis-ed (ph) became a thing for a while. It sent a message that you don't cross us on this.
SHAPIRO: Donald Trump ran on a platform of drain the swamp. He argued that he didn't need to take corporate money because he was rich enough to self-fund his campaign, even though that ended up not being true. Do you think his rhetoric shows that, in a way, a vote for Donald Trump was a recognition of the problems that you're raising in this book?
WHITEHOUSE: I absolutely agree with that. I absolutely agree with that. I think a lot of the people who voted for Donald Trump were frustrated. And what they thought was - OK, government is broken. Therefore, we're going to send in this incendiary character. And he's just going to going to bust it all up, and we'll see what happens. My thesis is that government is not, in fact, broken. It's just listening to the wrong people, and it's listening to all of this quiet influence. So it's a very robust operation that operates kind of under the surface.
SHAPIRO: Do you think that the mainstream of your party, the Democrats, understands this as much as you would like them to? Or does the popularity of somebody like Bernie Sanders, somebody like Elizabeth Warren show that the official party leaders aren't quite getting the message?
WHITEHOUSE: Hard to say. What I take your question to mean is - how many people actually have stepped back and looked at all the different ways in which government operates and then tried to look across all of them - at the different means and manners in which corporate influence penetrates them and infiltrates? And that, I think, is what a lot of people have not done. And that's why I think my book might be of some of some interest 'cause it tries to look across the board.
SHAPIRO: Well, except that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are giving speeches about this all the time. And, you know, Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, the head of the House Democrats - they're not giving these kinds of speeches all the time. So it's not that they aren't hearing the speeches that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are giving, right?
SHAPIRO: I mean, does that show that the leaders of the Democratic Party are saying, not my issue?
WHITEHOUSE: I don't know. I don't know. I think that the way I would describe it is that issues come up that need to be addressed. And we try to address that issue. But looking behind the scenes and trying to take time to actually explain what's going on behind the scenes isn't part of the drama and conflict of much legislative and political activity. And it's not clear to a lot of people that taking the time to go behind the scenes and point out how they're pulling this all off is worth the effort.
I think that it's worth the American people understanding the multiple ways in which this takes place. And all of that manifests itself up on the main stage when a particular fight about carried interest, climate change, Wall Street penalties, Wall Street regulatory reform or other - pharmaceutical prices - comes to the fore.
SHAPIRO: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island - the new book is called "Captured: The Corporate Infiltration Of American Democracy" - thanks a lot for joining us.
WHITEHOUSE: Thanks, Ari.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.