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Changing the national conversation about corporate influence

Photo: Arnie Alpert / AFSC

Our campaign reminded presidential candidates that the interests of the people, not corporations, must come first. 

Twenty days after the New Hampshire Primary, The New York Times editorialized in favor of a “better, not bigger military budget.” The Times editors explicitly called on the next president to “scale back the planned $1 trillion, 30-year modernization of a nuclear arsenal,” and referred to Hillary Clinton’s campaign trail pledge to appoint a commission that would study military procurement.

You would have had to be a close follower of the campaign to know about that pledge, which Clinton made at a “town hall meeting” in Concord, New Hampshire. Her statement was a response to a question from the Rev. Dwight Haynes about the undue influence of the military industrial complex.

Close followers of AFSC’s Governing Under the Influence project were already in the know because one of our volunteers had blogged about it back in September, and the Rev. Haynes’ interaction with the former secretary of state had been reported by Reuters.

That’s just one example of how our grassroots organizing campaign changed the national conversation.

AFSC volunteer Nancy Pape questions candidate Hillary Clinton about corporate influence on the campaign trail. During the months leading up to the first votes of the 2016 presidential campaign, our activist community reminded the country that the interests of the people—not corporations—must come first.

From October 2014 to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary 16 months later, AFSC trained more than 1200 people—people like Rev. Haynes—to question, or “bird dog,”—the presidential candidates. Together, we asked the candidates more than 400 questions about the excessive influence of Pentagon contractors, the for-profit prison industry, and a corrupt system that enables powerful corporations to drive American policy toward their own interests.

Writing for The Intercept on Feb. 9, the day of the New Hampshire primary, reporter Lee Fang observed, “For all the talk about this election revolving around national security and government spending, the AFSC group is the only one dedicated to asking candidates about President Barack Obama’s planned $1 trillion nuclear arms program, bloated military programs such as the Pentagon’s F-35, and how to diminish the influence of lobbying by military contractors."

By the time the presidential campaign left Iowa and New Hampshire, bird dogs and volunteers had been featured in 29 major media stories, including coverage in news outlets like The New York Times, CNN, NPR, the Washington Post, Bloomberg, Boston Globe, NHPR, WMUR, Union Leader, Des Moines Register, Huffington Post, and FOX News.

But we didn’t just talk to candidates and reporters. We put our banners on the street hundreds of times. Our measurements are not precise, but we estimate they were seen by more than 60,000 people. AFSC staff and dozens of volunteers had untold numbers of conversations about a system that enables powerful corporations to drive American policy toward more wars, more weapons, and more prisons. Regardless of partisan identities, we found plenty of voters who agreed with our analysis. We even brought resolutions right into the Iowa caucuses in dozens of precincts. 

Then-candidate Marco Rubio fields a question from AFSC volunteer Marlu Abarca.  Photo: AFSC/Kevin RutledgeGoverning Under the Influence made a splash in the online world as well, where people shared stories of our bird dog encounters, saw photos of our banners in action, read articles on our website, and tweeted with our hashtag, #WhoProfits.

For example, in early October 2015, Will Hopkins’ question to Hillary Clinton about Pentagon contractor influence was broadcast live on NBC’s “Today Show” and was later picked up on several social media outlets. That “Today Show” clip has more than 130,000 views on the Iraq Veterans Against the War Facebook page.

The GUI website itself was the go-to resource for journalists and activists who wanted to know where the candidates would appear. More than 106,000 people visited the site more than 206,000 times. We can’t say how many times we met reporters, photographers, and political tourists who told us how much they depended on the GUI calendar.

As the GUI project winds up, we want our participants and supporters to know that whether they bird-dogged a presidential candidate, held a banner, made a donation, or shared information in their social media accounts, they made a difference. The movement to end the practice of “governing under the influence” is a big step closer to its goals.

AFSC's Arnie Alpert  Photo: AFSC/Jon KriegOur community bird-dogged candidates and raised visibility for our issues for a year and a half. And Republican and Democratic candidates alike listened, took notes, and talked about he effect of corporate money on public policy.

Bird dogs pushed Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and George Pataki to speak out against the revolving door between government and corporations, calling for stronger restrictions on members of Congress becoming lobbyists.

Our pointed questions elicited vigorous comments against crony capitalism from Carly Fiorina, who concedes there is a lot of it at the Pentagon.

Because we asked, John Kasich said that it’s a bad system when billionaires can pick the next president, and Lindsey Graham called for the overturn of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which grants corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on electioneering.

On the question of corporate lobbying, Rand Paul said we ought to place restrictions on government contractor lobbying. Chris Christie said we need to shine a light on it. Ben Carson said he wants to make a rule to stop it.

When we first asked Hillary Clinton about the immigrant detention quota that benefits for-profit detention facilities in November 2014, she said that she had “never heard that question,” and that she would “look into it.” Six months later, she spoke out against using private prisons to warehouse immigrants. After persistent bird dogging, Martin O’Malley took a strong stance against the quota. Bernie Sanders introduced legislation to end for-profit immigrant detention. Jeb Bush also said that it is a policy that should change.

All that we’ve accomplished is due to so many people’s involvement in this campaign. Thank you.

With your commitment and persistence, we interrupted politics-as-usual and insisted on a government that works for all us.

About the Author

Arnie Alpert served as AFSC’s New Hampshire co-director, where he first joined AFSC in 1981. He retired from AFSC in June 2020. Arnie is a leader in movements for economic justice and affordable housing, civil and worker rights, peace and disarmament, abolition of the death penalty, and an end to racism and homophobia. 

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