Skip to content Skip to footer

David Simon on Our Rigged Political System

David Simon, journalist and creator of the TV series “The Wire” and “Treme,” returns to talk with Bill Moyers about the triumph of capital over democracy.

Part of the Series

David Simon. (Screen grab via <a href= Moyers & Company)” width=”400″ height=”225″ />David Simon. (Screen grab via Moyers & Company)David Simon, journalist and creator of the TV series The Wire and Treme, returns to talk with Bill Moyers about the triumph of capital over democracy.

“If I could concentrate and focus on one thing … and start to walk the nightmare back, it would be campaign finance reform” Simon says.

Simon warns that if we don’t fix our broken election system — by getting big money out of elections and ending gerrymandering — we will have reached “the end game for democracy.”


BILL MOYERS: Welcome. There’s no way to say it nicely. The stench of corruption hangs over American politics like smog over Shanghai. Every day brings new headlines. If it’s not in Chris Christie’s New Jersey, it’s in Ray Nagin’s New Orleans, where the former mayor has been convicted for taking bribes and kickbacks.

And in our nation’s capital, the revolving door whirls like a runaway carousel, delivering one member of Congress or top staffer after another into the waiting arms of corporate mercenaries offering top dollar for services rendered; never mind the conflicts of interest. And all the while gushers of money pour into political campaigns non-stop, producing a marionette government of legalized theft.

You would think all this sleaze would be enough to turn everyone off. And it has indeed provoked dangerously widespread cynicism and apathy. But not among the two men on this broadcast. You will meet Lawrence Lessig later in the show, but first we’re back with David Simon, the former crime reporter turned television producer. He created two acclaimed series for HBO: “Treme,” about the struggle to rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans, and “The Wire,” the story of crime and punishment in the streets of Baltimore.

CLARENCE ROYCE in The Wire: Campaign runs on dollars, you know it.

BILL MOYERS: Each showed how corrupted capitalism and politics leave poor people at the mercy of a rigged system.

MAURICE LEVY in The Wire: You are amoral, are you not? You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade. You’re stealing from those who themselves are stealing the life blood of our city. You are a parasite who leeches off the culture of drugs.

OMAR LITTLE in The Wire: Just like you man.

MAURICE LEVY in The Wire: Excuse me?

OMAR LITTLE in The Wire: I got the shot gun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game though right?

BILL MOYERS: What I remember so vividly after watching that scene is that the law shrugged. That’s quite often the effect of money in politics: the system works only for those who pay to play, who have bought the rule-making machinery of government. As David Simon put it when he was here two weeks ago:

DAVID SIMON in Moyers & Company: Show 304: You can buy these guys on the cheap. And capital’s been at it a long time and the rules have been relaxed. The Supreme Court has walked away from any sort of responsibility to maintain democracy at that level. That’s the aspect of government that’s broken.

BILL MOYERS: Simon talked about this last fall in a speech at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Australia. Here’s the conclusion of his message:

DAVID SIMON at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas: The last job of capitalism – having won all the battles against labor, having acquired the ultimate authority, almost the ultimate moral authority over what’s a good idea or what’s not, or what’s valued and what’s not – the last journey for capital in my country has been to buy the electoral process, the one venue for reform that remained […] And ultimately, right now, capital has effectively purchased the government.

BILL MOYERS: Your summation is grim, but true. Capital owns our politics. What do we do about it?

DAVID SIMON: I think if I could fix one thing, if I could concentrate and focus on one thing and hope that by breaking the cycle you might start to walk this nightmare back, it would be campaign finance reform. The logic of Citizens United and other decisions that are framed around that. Certainly our judicial branch has failed to value the idea of one man, one vote.

You don’t count more because you run a corporation and you can heave money in favor of your political philosophy onto the process. You don’t count more, you’re one guy.

BILL MOYERS: Free speech, this court has said—

DAVID SIMON: Of course, of course.

BILL MOYERS: —free speech, under the first amendment corporations have the right of—

DAVID SIMON: And you know what— right, and you know what? Everyone reacted the wrong way when they heard that decision. They all— the chant from the left became, “Corporations are people? Corporations are not people.” Well, no, actually under the law, that’s the reason for corporations if you know, they are indeed given the rights of individuals, and that’s why you form corporations and that’s how the law treats them.

They’re sociopaths as people, you know, they have to report their profit to the— I mean, that’s who they are. But you know, by definition, you know, if all you care about is your profits, to the shareholders, you know, and nothing else in human terms, you’re probably a sociopath.

But okay, they get to exist as— no, it was that speech is money, that was— when you start equating speech with money and you see them as being comparable, money is in a fundamental regard the opposite of speech in many ways. Speech, you know, or it’s a kind of speech so foul that it shouldn’t be— it shouldn’t have the weight it has in our democracy.

And that’s the, that to me was the nails in the coffin. If you can’t fix the elections so that they actually resemble the popular will, if the combination of the monetization of the elections and gerrymandering create a bicameral legislature that doesn’t in any way reflect the will of the American people, you’ve reached the end game for democracy. And I think we have.

BILL MOYERS: You were very clear in your Australian speech that capitalism is no blueprint for building a society, it’s not the road to a just country, you say.

DAVID SIMON: Well, it’s not. You know, it’s a tool for building wealth. If wealth is the only measure of your society— I’m not saying it isn’t a measure, but if wealth is the only measure of society and there’s no distinction on how that wealth is going to be distributed among the various classes or how that wealth is going to be put to the needs of the society or how the society’s going to be protected from inevitable threat, if all of those things are not— if how the society’s infrastructure, shared infrastructure, is fashioned and whether or not it’s sustainable, if all those things are not metrics and if it’s just about generating mass wealth, then you know, what are we saying? What are we saying about the human condition? What are saying about our society’s condition?

BILL MOYERS: And how do you tame the greed?

DAVID SIMON: You have to do it legislatively. And how do you do that when your legislative aspect has been completely purchased by the very capital that is being amassed? That’s the problem, you know. There isn’t a Teddy Roosevelt confronting these robber barons.

BILL MOYERS: Are you angry about this?

DAVID SIMON: Aren’t you?


DAVID SIMON: I mean, listen, I have a good life. I go, you know, I—

BILL MOYERS: Same here.

DAVID SIMON: I go to the playground with my kid, I watch the game on Saturday. I’m not, like, an angry person. But I can’t look at politics and be sanguine about where we’re going.

BILL MOYERS: And you understand why so many people whose anger turns to resignation?

DAVID SIMON: Resignation or contempt for government as an idea. That’s a luxury we don’t have. It is basically either, on one side it’s people who think, “I can do well on my own and screw my neighbor.” And it’s basically greed wrapping itself in the mantle of a legitimate ideology. Or it’s just people who are not doing well, who are saying, you know, “The government’s my enemy.”

If democracy’s going to work, the government in some sense is you and your neighbors. And if it’s not, that’s the fight to have. And that fight can’t be had by walking away. You know, if 20 percent of the people in America end up voting in elections that they don’t think matter and they’re right, well, they’ll be right, but you know, the democracy will die regardless.

It’s like I say, it’s a fight worth having even if we’re going to lose. But right now I have to say, you know, they’ve purchased so much and so deeply, and the contempt for the idea of the popular will is so firm in the people who are rigging the game that the logical outcome, a generation from now, may be that just people pick up a brick. And I don’t know what happens after people pick up— nobody does. Nobody quite knows where it goes. Revolution’s all good when it’s in theory. But you know, the—

BILL MOYERS: The blood runs?

DAVID SIMON: Yeah, and first of all the right people don’t always get hit by the right bricks. And second of all, you know, as they’re finding in Tahrir Square now, you know, you fight for one thing and you get another.

And I’m not saying I’m looking forward to the brick, but you know, it is there at the bottom. It’s, you know, if enough people opt out and enough people get angry and enough people start to find themselves deeply at the margins. And increasingly it starts to span across racial and social lines to include actual white folk— it’ll be an interesting dynamic.

BILL MOYERS: David, I don’t know anyone who has made a more dire and dark conclusion.

DAVID SIMON: Oh come on, there are guys to the—-

BILL MOYERS: No, no, you— no, I don’t. But at the same time you don’t give up. You keep writing these stories, you keep trying to tell us through—

DAVID SIMON: Well, I like the stories are good, for me. They’re stories I want to tell. You ever read Camus, the “The Myth of Sisyphus”?

BILL MOYERS: Sisyphus, yes.

DAVID SIMON: Right, well, you know, in sum, what I took from Camus was the idea that to commit to an unlikely cause or a cause that is, seems, almost certain of defeat, seems absurd. But to not commit is also absurd given the situation. And only one choice of those two offers even the remote chance at dignity. But more than that, the idea that democracy works without there being a constant fight, without us— you know, listen, people who walk away and say I’m not going to play this game by which I might lose or which the odds are stacked against me, and want the lofty position of walking away and saying, “No more.” They’re going to achieve nothing except a more rapid decline in their society.

There’s nowhere to go except to fight.

BILL MOYERS: David Simon, thank you very much for being with me.

DAVID SIMON: Thanks for having me.

Producer: Gina Kim. Segment Producer: Lena Shemel. Editor: Sikay Tang.