Democracy for sale — cheap!

 

Democracy is precious, or so I thought. Turns out it’s fairly affordable.

New Orleanians know all too well that our democratic process can be subverted. The desired outcome can be purchased for the right price. On Friday, we got an object lesson in one of the many ways this can work. It’s rare to see specific numbers attached, and it’s appalling to realize just how cheap the price tag is.

You might have missed it in the Jazz Fest madness. To recap, on Friday The Lens reported that at least some of the people in orange shirts that packed City Hall hearings on Entergy’s proposed gas plant were, in fact, paid actors.

Exactly how many hired actors were in the crowd remains unclear. The Lens confirms four. Everyone who got paid had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, so these are just the people who talked anyway. One of these actors spotted 15 other people in the crowd he knew from the film industry. There’s every reason to expect that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

For a few dollarydoos more

Big props to Michael Isaac Stein for some excellent investigative journalism. He uncovered many fascinating details.

I was particularly intrigued to note just how little this shenanigan cost. The actors were paid between 60 and 200 “dollarydoos” for a three hour gig. What’s a dollarydoo? No, it’s not Australian currency. That’s the fanciful term used by a guy named Garrett Wilkerson when he advertised the gig on Facebook. He works for a talent agency out of Los Angeles called Crowds on Demand. Subverting our democracy is their specialty!

After mass shootings and other tragedies, conspiracy theories fly around the internet, alleging that victims who appear in the media are “crisis actors” hired to serve some nefarious end. Those allegations are demonstrably false. It’s fake news. What happened in our own City Hall is real. That is, these are the real fakes. Sorry if that’s confusing.

Wilkerson paid 60 dollarydoos for nonspeaking roles. These people just showed up at City Hall wearing an orange shirt, holding signs supporting Entergy’s gas plant. Speaking roles earned more. This meant standing up at the mic and parroting support of the gas plant from a list of prepared talking points. That paid 200 dollarydoos.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s say Wilkerson hired ten people in each role. That’s 2,600 dollarydoos. Let’s further guess his company’s commission was ten times that: 26 thousand dollarydoos. Just a wild guess. That’s certainly more than I have lying around the house, but in the big scheme it’s a pittance.

Because let’s remember: the gas plant itself is a $210 million project. That’s a whole lot of dollarydoos.

Astroturf versus grassroots

True democracy comes from the bottom up, which is why we talk about “grassroots” when we want to emphasize the real desires of real people to have a voice in governing our community.

Spending money to hire people who pretend to support a cause, in hopes of swaying decision-makers, is pretty much the opposite of that. It’s fake grassroots, commonly known as astroturf.

Entergy has denied paying people to testify. But as councilmember Susan Guidry (who represents part of Mid-City) observed, “How can you not link Entergy to this?”

I was going to make a joke about Russia being behind this, but I’m afraid people would take that seriously.

Why would anyone (other than Entergy) shell out money to create the illusion of support for the gas plant? Make no mistake, real people are not in favor of this project.

Fortunately, there are a number of true grassroots organizations which have united in a coalition opposing Entergy’s gas plant, including the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association, Justice and Beyond, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and 350 New Orleans. They’ve been working hard on true people power. Unfortunately, they don’t have the budget Entergy commands, but we should pay attention to what they’re telling us.

In that spirit, I asked Renate Heurich what she thought about these revelations. She’s Vice President of 350 New Orleans, which is the local branch of a global grassroots network aiming to mitigate the climate crisis by limiting carbon dioxide emissions.

She sums up the debacle in one pithy paragraph:

Dozens, but more likely hundreds, of people were paid cash to come out at two crucial council meetings to express support for a new gas-fired power plant Entergy New Orleans wants to build – a huge expense for ratepayers and a handsome profit for Entergy. More than a hundred opponents were locked out of these meetings as a result. This reveals a deeply corrupted political process and shows how much Entergy fears our vocal opposition. In the first quarter of 2018, 94% of all new electricity generation in the US was wind and solar. Gas power plants are becoming obsolete; Entergy is forcing an expensive stranded asset on us. But we are not done fighting this incredibly stupid project. As our experts have pointed out over and over: cheaper, clean alternatives are readily available.

An obvious question is this: Why must we struggle to control the policies of an entity that should serve us? How can we establish a relationship that puts the people in charge?

John Clark, professor emeritus at Loyola University, was one of many involved in the fight to establish municipal utilities in New Orleans in the 1980s. According to Dr. Clark, “The immediate solution now as 30 years ago is municipalization and the establishment of a sane, democratic, just and ecological local energy program.”

What chance do such proposals stand in our current milieu, wherein our elected officials are deceived by hired actors?

To be clear, the deceptive tactics deployed here by no means excuse the council for their decision. They should have known better. They should have been able to tell astroturf from grassroots. They are supposed to represent us after all.

Props to Councilmember Guidry, the only one who voted against the gas plant.

Democracy is a great idea. We should try it sometime.

The crisis in democracy is by no means limited to our local area only. It is endemic across the country. A recent study reveals that fully two-thirds of the eligible adult population plans to sit out the midterm elections in November.

Some people aren’t registered to vote and don’t see much point in getting registered. But many registered voters are also disillusioned with the process. Who can blame them? Dishonesty and cynical maneuvers are rampant, as we’ve seen in the gas plant fiasco. Why bother to vote when the system is rigged? People are disgusted by Trump in particular but also — crucially! — by the two-party system in general. According to the survey, people want more independent and third-party voices.

And yet, when I share this information with friends, I am greeted with widespread denial. Can’t be true. People gonna vote. Third parties are the problem, not the solution. And so on. My friends seem to ignore that this widespread disengagement is perfectly in line with historical trends. They ignore what people are actually saying at a grassroots level: 57% said third parties are “necessary.”

Some of my smartest friends point out the systematic obstacles to third party success in America. Our system is structured to favor a two-party system. Eventually, those two parties begin to function as a single two-valve unit, defining the limits of political possibility, and re-enforcing each other’s hold on power.

However, there are systemic reforms that allow for grassroots democracy to flourish and thrive. We can reform the way we count votes and elect officials. We can reform the way our City Council represents the population. The possibilities are manifold.

This will be our topic on the 15th of May, when the Green Party of New Orleans meets to discuss “A Local Platform for Grassroots Democracy” at the Mid-City Library. Join us!

Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband, a father and a resident of Mid-City. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. More at BartEverson.com.


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