It was a simple internet search that led documentarian Alexandra Pelosi (San Francisco 2.0) to a list of the biggest campaign donors funding presidential candidates. In her latest HBO doc, Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk?, we watch as Pelosi meets with an assortment of billionaire donors, asking them why they give millions to candidates, how this funding affects campaigns, and all the access these hefty donations can get you. We spoke with Pelosi about the donors she interviewed, the impact they’ve had on past elections, and how this system plays into the current election.
In your interviews donor after donor would give you a similar reason as to why they give so much money to campaigns, that it’s out of the goodness of their heart.
What? You don’t believe them? That’s what’s wrong with you? You’re so cynical. They write $10 million checks because they just love America.
Right. Did you feel frustrated that they weren’t being fully honest with you?
I think that’s the way it looks in their world. I think a couple things — first of all, I don’t think you realize how rich these people are. I feel like the disconnect that I keep having to try to explain to people that I know is you don’t understand what a billionaire is like. They live in a bubble surrounded by people that tell them what they want to hear and they get anything they want. So I don’t think they look at it as, I’m paying 10 million dollars and I’m getting “x”. I think they think of it more as, this is the price tag for the company they keep. I know that nobody sat down and just spread themselves out for me and said, “Okay, here’s why I do it, so I can get this law written.” But I feel like it’s unspoken. That you get it from what they don’t say. I know it’s not satisfying for you because they don’t fully open up their diary and dish because the quid pro quo is not that concrete.
Did you expect a clear answer from the outset and then realize as you interviewed more people that you weren’t going to get that linear explanation from them?
The ratio of how many interviews I filmed to how many show up in the film is staggering. At some point I realized, oh, it’s more sophisticated then I though it was. Well, Tom Steyer is pretty clear. You talk to some people who are clear, like, “I’m doing this because I want clear energy.” “I’m doing this because I want to save the world from global warming.” That’s an admission or sorts. And you may think, it’s a good cause so it’s okay. Or is it? If he wants to save the world, is that okay? But at least he says it, they admit what they wanted — I have this law and I want to get it passed. And it didn’t work because the Koch brothers outspent him. But that’s pretty revealing. But they all say, “I do it because I love America and so I can have access, if I need the access.” Like paying insurance.
It’s like the membership fee to go to Camp David.
Exactly. That’s very articulate, thank you. I wish I was as articulate as you are. It’s just like a membership fee to a club to get you invited to the exclusive places in America where no one else can go.
And what do you think goes into some donors being vilified over others?
I’ll say this: I do think there’s a deep hypocrisy in the media coverage of campaign finance. When the Koch brothers write checks they are demonized because they’re trying to make the world in their likeness. But when a Democrat writes big checks, when George Soros writes a huge check he’s deified because he’s on the side of the angels. Oh, that’s my politics so that’s okay. He spent millions of dollars trying to take George Bush out and it’s okay if it’s in line with your politics. I’m not saying that’s right, but I feel like that’s the way the narrative goes. And I’m saying this as a person who is full blue, I’m from San Francisco and live in New York City, that’s my whole world experience. I live in the blue bubble. But I see the hypocrisy in the coverage.
How has making this film changed the way you view the conventions?
I have to apologize because I feel so dark right now. I’m in a really dark place. I was at the Ritz-Carlton and there was so much money there and I’ve voted Democrat my whole life so I can say this as a Democrat, it’s shameful how much influence money has in the current campaign. Where I was sitting in the convention hall, the Bernie people last night where protesting, chanting “Goldman Sachs.” I voted for Bernie, I was totally a Bernie person and I get that now it’s time to move on. But there was so much money at the convention and that money was not in Ohio. You did not see that money in Ohio because those big money people are not behind Trump, because he’s gone rogue. It was hard to see it in the hotel bar round the clock, real money on display at the convention. And you got to call it out when you see it. And that’s the reason people don’t vote, because they feel like their vote doesn’t matter because of all the money that’s going into the election. There’s a lot of money surrounding Clinton, I haven’t seen that kind of money before.
How would you like to see it change? What’s your ideal?
I’m just a documentary filmmaker and I really stayed away from the think tank because I don’t really believe that there is some great road map to a fair election. Sorry to be so dark. Maybe we should have rescheduled this talk for next week when I’m feeling a bit more positive. I would love to tell you that I have a solution, but I don’t. There are a lot of good groups working towards a solution. There’s Take Back Our Republic and Issue One. Call them because they have answers.
After making this film, what are your lingering questions? What do you still want to know?
I want the smoking gun. Well the Wikileaks was a little bit of the smoking gun. Let’s face it, Wikileaks think that they outed the DNC, and what did we really learn from those emails? We learned that if you give $300,000 dollars to Obama you can sit next to him at dinner. You didn’t see anything in there that said, “This guy is giving us $300,000 dollars and in exchange he wants a law written that say this this and this.” Wikileaks didn’t prove anything except that rich people get to sit next to the president.
Are you worried about our future with how this election may turn out?
I think America is fine. There’s a lot of hyperbole about the state of Western civilization. If Trump becomes president, we’ll be fine. If Hillary becomes president, we’ll be fine. It will make a big difference in some people’s lives but not the people who say, “This is the most important election of our lifetime and if Trump becomes president I’m moving to Canada.” Everyone wants to come to American still. It’s embarrassing, I would say. The amount of money going into our election is really pushing voters out. I think the only real solution is making voting law. If people were required by law to vote we’d have a totally different outcome.
(Meet the Donors premieres on HBO tonight, Monday, August 1st)