Why Make Issue Films In A Politically Rigid Climate?

This story isn't about Republicans and Democrats.

How is Saving Capitalism going to make an impact? I was coming off of Inequality For All, a documentary about widening economic inequality that featured the work of Robert Reich and had won a special jury award at the Sundance Film Festival. But I knew why people were asking. There is a growing concern that (so-called) “issue-films” aren’t reaching outside “the choir.”  The “truth” is now put in a partisan box. In that environment, what’s the point of making a political film at all? Aren’t you just “preaching to the converted”?

My answer? Follow the money. People of all political persuasions care about money. Money is power. As economic inequality became a bigger and more known story, less attention was being paid to the resulting concentration of political power. That story — of increasing concentration of income and wealth leading to concentration of political power — is the story of Saving Capitalism.

It was 2015, and Robert Reich had just written a book called Saving Capitalism. It was his great insight that this power story would convulse the political system, and he was traveling around the country just as the presidential election was heating up to tell people about it. I thought I’d pick up a camera, go with him on the trip, and see what happened. I wanted to know if this “political re-alignment” was going to happen.

Well, what I found blew me away. “Regular” people were angry, and they were dying for someone to listen to them. This anger wasn’t about if they were Republican or Democrat. It was about power and not having their voices heard. Change was coming. I just didn’t know how quickly it would happen. When we set out to make the film, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush were the leading candidates for president. It seemed crazy to be talking about the coming anti-establishment wave. 

But if you stepped back and got a birds-eye view of the economy, it made sense. The (roughly) top 10 percent of the economic distribution were living in a world where the economy and the democracy were working. They could be Republican or Democrat, and they clearly didn’t agree about most things, but the system was more-or-less responsive to them. The bottom 90 percent, on the other hand, was having a very different experience. They also could be Republican or Democrat, and they also clearly didn’t agree about most issues. But they had a powerful feeling that the economy had stopped working for them, and that the political system was unresponsive to their needs.

While globalization and technological change had been pushing change in the economy, there was another force that was at work. The rules of the system — of capitalism itself — had been changing.  In small ways, often in ways that were invisible to the public, the rules were being re-written to help the wealthy and hurt everyone else.

Concentrating economic power meant the concentration of political power to make the rules of capitalism.

Consider pharmaceuticals. Americans pay more for pharmaceuticals than the citizens of any advanced nation. Why is that? Big pharma’s economic clout means they have the political clout to influence the rules of the system. The end result is that drugs cost more in the U.S. than in other countries.

Or consider the internet. Americans pay more for slower internet speeds than do the citizens of any other advanced nation. Industry after industry, the rules of the system benefit the wealthy and large corporations and hurt regular people.

So, what to do? There is one solution, and it has nothing to do with policy. As Reich frequently says, policy solutions are plentiful. What is missing is the political will to implement them. Those can only come from a movement of the people rising up to take their economy and their democracy back. They have the money, but we have the numbers. We’ve seen these movements on the right with the Tea Party and on the left with the now-defunct Occupy Wall Street movement. To this point, these populist movements have been separated into their political sides.

But we’ve seen the people blur political lines and unite against monied interests the past. When activated, these numbers taking to the streets have been a powerful force in American history, for example in the first progressive movement from roughly 1900-1916 and in the new deal of the 1930s. 

This populism, this rising up of people who are angry that their voices (both economic and political) aren’t being heard, is the big story of our times. And it isn’t a story of left versus right. It can be channeled by a strong man or dictator just as easily as it can be channeled into positive social change. That’s the precipice at which America now stands.

Understanding how we got here so we can understand where we go from here seemed like a great reason to make Saving Capitalism. I don’t know how our economic and political systems heal themselves. But I do know that our economic and political systems are linked. And I know that cynicism, and inaction, are the enemies to fixing them both.

A good “issue” film isn’t about telling the audiences what to think or being didactic. It isn’t about having the answers. It is about seeing the narrative threads and the larger story behind the news headlines. In this case, it is about the voices of the many acting as a kind of countervailing power to the influence of the wealthy few.

Which way we go is up to us. But, as Americans have done time and time again, here’s hoping we Save Capitalism once again.