Gary Hart on Political Dynasties, Campaign Financing and The Republic of Conscience

Author, attorney, former U.S. senator and two-time presidential candidate Gary Hart will be at the Tattered Cover on July 6 to discuss his latest book,
The Republic of Conscience. Hart, who represented Colorado in the Senate from 1975 to 1987 and ran for President in 1984 and 1988, is the author of fifteen books, including The Shield, The Cloak 
and Restoration of the Republic. His latest work traces the erosion of the ideals that motivated the founding of this country and the emergence of a political landscape driven by money, political dynasties and special interests. Hart, who's lectured at Yale, the University of California and Oxford, where he earned his doctorate in the philosophy of politics, currently teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder. He took a few minutes from his busy schedule to talk with us about his new book, political ethics and the current presidential race.

Westword: Can you give a quick synopsis of
The Republic of Conscience?

Gary Hart: It’s a contrast between what the founders of our country envisioned and what we have become in the 21st century, especially in the field — I guess you would call it — of political ethics. To begin with, the founders created a republic, and all of the founding debate in the late 18th century used the language of the republic from ancient Athens and Greece. And one of the key qualities of the republic was resistance to corruption. Now, they did not define corruption as bribery. They defined corruption as placing special or personal interests ahead of the common good — or today what we would call national interest. And when you apply that standard to politics in America today, we are a massively corrupt republic. [This is] because of the explosive growth of the lobbying industry in Washington, including now over 400 former members of Congress...and the connection of that industry to the staggering increase in campaign-financing costs, and the amount of money that candidates for office raise from those special interests and lobbyists. And then finally, [we're] creating a kind of closed political system in Washington, in which you have to be part of that political elite to get anything done or try to pursue what’s best for the country. And that’s my analysis in 200 pages as to why there is such frustration with a stalemated government.

The Supreme Court ruling on the Citizens United case comes to mind when you speak of the growing influence of money in the political system. What have been some of the other developments that have given more power to wealth and special interests?

The time while I was in office, which was in the '70s and '80s, [witnessed] the beginning of the merging of office holders with lobbyists, and as I’ve mentioned earlier, the transference of former members of Congress, whether retired or defeated, into the ranks of lobbyists, so that they could use their contacts in Washington…to get what they want for their largely corporate clients, and then, when they were successful, reward the members of Congress who voted for them…with heavy campaign contributions. What the Supreme Court managed to do was legalize and legitimize this kind of institution of corruption. So it’s been a phenomenon of the last thirty, no, more than forty years, and has occurred in my lifetime. And what it does is take away the idealism of young people who want to work in government to help their country, when they see first-hand as members of staff, or as young elected officials, how this system works and how corrupted it is. And it erodes that idealism, and it causes people to say, “Okay, if everybody is making a lot of money doing this, then I’m going to make a lot of money doing it as well.”

Can you offer a comparison between what it takes financially to run a political campaign today with what was required when you ran for President in 1984 and 1988?

Well, let’s start with the Senate. It draws a laugh now when I tell people this: When I ran for the Senate in 1974, and there was a contested primary among Democrats to run [against] a very wealthy, two-term, Republican incumbent... the entire race from beginning to end cost $375,000 dollars, and the average contribution was $17. By 1980, when I ran for reelection, I had to raise $1.1 million, three times the amount six years before, and I was outspent, even though I won. By today’s time, a Senate seat in Colorado, a state of five million people, costs roughly $25 million to $30 million — or even more. So you can see the contrast between 1974 and 2015, just in that fairly short period of time in American history. On the national level, I ran a close second to Vice President Mondale for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and I think the total amount in fifty states — we campaigned in all fifty states and the contest went to the convention in San Francisco — our entire campaign was $20 million to $25 million, which I thought was a staggering amount at the time.... Well, today Hillary Clinton says she’s going to raise at least $1 billion, and possibly, her staff says, as much as $2.5 billion. So that’s happened in this country in thirty years — it's staggering.

In 2014 an article out of Princeton caused some stir by implying that the United States is an oligarchy, not a democracy — nor a republic, for that matter. Would you confirm that notion?

Well, make sure that everybody understands what that means. It basically is a term applied to countries where there are very few ruling families, as in much of – in the past, at least – Latin America and other parts of the world. Well, if we get down to a Bush-Clinton race, this will be the fourth presidential campaign for a Clinton, two of which have been successful, and the fourth or fifth race for a member of the Bush family for the presidency, three of which have been successful. That comes very very close to any definition of oligarchy you want to mention. Now somebody’s going to say, "There’s fifteen people on the Republican side.” This is more or less true. But that includes not only a Bush whose father and brother were presidents, but a number of candidates who, right out of the starting block, have their own billionaire sponsors – whether a casino mogul or some other extremely wealthy person. If that’s what we’ve gotten down to, that is a form of oligarchy.

Given your open lament of political dynasties in America, who would you want to see as Democratic candidate for the upcoming presidential race?

Someone who understands the dramatic changes going on the world in the 21st century. I’m not going to name any names. 2015 is dramatically different from the 1990s. Even if you were first lady in the 1990s, you need to think about an almost totally different world, and not govern with the same people, the same ideas, the same policies that your husband pursued 15, 20 or 25 years ago. That’s a roundabout way of saying I’m hoping one of the Democratic candidates – and the field is not yet closed, I don’t think – will reveal an understanding of the world in which we live: of globalization, of the information revolution, of the changing nature of warfare, of trade, of immigration, of all of these 21st century new realities and propose policies specifically to address them. Not just say “immigration is a big issue” or “trade is a complicated issue” — that’s not enough. The people of this country are smart, and they want candidates who can say, “And here’s what I think we should do about it,” in very specific terms.

Going back to the 18th century, what are some of the principles you speak of that inspired you to write Republic of Conscience?

I started twenty or so years ago studying the history of the republic. We’re taught in America about - and we use the language of -democracy. But as I said earlier, if you read the founding documents and the debates, they used the language of the republic, and if you stopped ten people on the street and said, “What is a republic?” they probably couldn’t tell you because it’s not taught in our schools.

So I did my own study, including getting an advanced degree on the history of the republic and the American Republic. And since Athens in the fourth or fifth century BC, there have been four qualities of republics. First of all, what’s called popular sovereignty, that is to say, the power belongs to the people: no king, no potentate, no strong-person. The power of the republic belongs to the people. That’s very important. It sounds like a bumper-strip slogan, but it’s powerful. It’s a powerful idea and has been for 2,500 years. The second thing is what they call civic virtue, and what that meant was citizens owe some of their energy to the maintenance and promotion of the republic. More than just voting, or more even than just volunteering for military service — but engagement and participation in the political issues of the day. Going to town meetings, participating in debates, reading, thinking, staying current and trying to help seek solutions, even at the local level, not necessarily at the presidential level. And then, I mention the sets of the commonwealth, what we have in common, not what we as individuals want, or what our group wants, but what we as Americans have in common. And it’s a lot. It’s transportation systems, it’s natural resources, it’s the environment, it's national parks and recreation, it's the military, and the list goes on. If you add up all of the things that belong to all of the people of the United States, its pretty impressive, and it means you have to pay attention to the preservation of that commonwealth. And finally I mentioned resistance to corruption. And those are the four qualities that our founders believed in very strongly, and they believed most strongly in the fourth one. And that’s why I wrote the book.

Is there a potential critique of the American Republic, given that such oppressive conditions existed at the founding of the United States, such as slavery and the inability of women to vote? Does this belie the principles that underlie the idea of the Republic?

Well, I deal with those in the book, and I say we have made huge progress in those areas. Not only in the Civil War, which abolished slavery, and all the Civil Rights movements that occurred thereafter, but in the empowerment of women, the increasing protection of the environment, the openness of government: There’s much ability now, at least on CSPAN and so forth, for everyday Americans to see what’s going on in the House or Senate if they care to, and a lot of people do. So, yes, there has been progress, I’m not saying it's all been downhill. We’ve done very well in many respects.

Civil rights in the '50s and '60s we had to do, because we were combatting communism and they were dragging us over the coals in Latin America and Africa and Asia for being a segregationist society. So we couldn’t fight the Cold War in the Third World without achieving greater equality here at home. And as you can see, in the debate over the Confederate flag, we still haven’t gotten it totally right.
But the fact that we’ve made progress in those areas doesn’t mean we’ve also drifted away from some very vital foundational principles. And I make both those arguments.

Learn more about The Republic of Conscience at 7 p.m. Monday, July 6, at the Tattered Cover Colfax, 2526 East Colfax Avenue, where Hart will sign copies of his book and also answer questions. "That’s what’s most interesting to me, trying to answer questions," he says. "Also hearing what’s on peoples' minds." Visit Tattered Cover's calendar for more information.
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Luke Leavitt
Contact: Luke Leavitt

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