Steve Hilton

Populists Revolt

Air Date: December 9, 2017

Steve Hilton, founder of Crowdpac and former advisor to Prime Minister David Cameron, talks about the rise of populism.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. Our guest today was senior advisor to former British Prime Minister David Cameron, co-founder and CEO of Crowdpac, a political data technology startup. Our guest is Steve Hilton a self-described radical for democracy, whose Crowdpac, in layman’s terms, is helping political outsiders raise money and run for office, tracking data from across the United States. Hilton recently launched the one-hour television Fox program The Next Revolution to examine the impact of the populist movement in the United States and abroad. “We’re gonna be looking at the failures of the elitist policies that we’ve seen now for decades, considering a positive agenda for changes that will actually help people in their daily lives. I’m calling it positive populism.” Those are Steve’s words, and it’s a pleasure to welcome him today. Thank you for being here.

HILTON: It’s great to be here, it’s very nice hearing those words. I thought I really agree with that. It turns out it was me all along, so yes, that’s our plan on the show, and it actually is, it’s, it’s great to be able to be on the other side of the conversation and be with you today.

HEFFNER: Excellent, Fox News,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Sunday evenings.

HILTON: Sunday 9 eastern, yeah, live every Sunday night.

HEFFNER: Nine eastern. You have a fascinating career in the political sphere, and now are exposed to American electoral currents.

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Or electric currents, I should say. The state of populism since Donald Trump’s election and since Brexit, what has changed since those pivotal decisions?

HILTON: Mm-hmm. Well I think that the, the first thing we need to do is take a large number of steps backwards, because the forces that led to those big moments in, in, in political history, both in the, in the UK and here in America, the forces that, that prompted these revolutions really against the ruling elite and the way policy had been conducted for many decades have been going on for decades. They’ve been building and building. It’s not a, it’s not a sudden thing. And I think that the heart of it is this is, is the way in which power in the economy, in government, and, and across the border has just been centralized. Too much power, too much control has ended up in too few people’s hands, and you see that in all sorts of ways. You see that in income inequality, the way that really going back now a couple of decades, there’s been a complete detachment from what we used to see in the economy, which is economic growth going up, wages and incomes going up, shareholder returns going up, all pretty much aligned. But a couple of decades ago, that just completely split, and the returns and the income gained by the owners of companies completely shot up the chart, whereas, wages basically were flat or stagnant. So that’s just one example where the people, the concentration of economic power is a contributor to that, but you see it when, in our government and politics as well, and that’s actually, the other side of the story really of my story which is Crowdpac, where when you think about democracy and the way it operates in America today, so much of the power has ended up in the hands of so few people, and at the heart of that is money, because the, the biggest factor influencing who gets elected, who’s in Congress and in state legislatures making the laws that people live by is money. Is how you can, whether you can raise money. And the money is coming again from a, from a more and more concentrated group of people and organizations. And that’s why I think the money problem in politics is at the heart of everything else, and that’s why we started Crowdpac to try and end that stranglehold of the big money donors on the political system and make it easy, as you mentioned, for anyone to run for office at any level, federal, state, or local without relying on the traditional systems of party finance and, and, and all those things that actually have ended up concentrating power in just the hands of a few people.

HEFFNER: So your organization is in contact with or can be a host in effect for candidates who may want to emerge on the scene for 2018.

HILTON: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But lack the resources or the platform,

HILTON: Yes, that’s the, that’s the crucial word,

HEFFNER: To raise the funds.

HILTON: Platform is exactly the right word. We’re, we’re an open platform. We’re non-partisan so we, anyone can use Crowdpac. A way to think about it really is, is, which people will be very familiar with is, it’s like a sort of crowdfunding platform, and people will be familiar with that in other areas for example, Kickstarter for sort of more arts-based projects and GoFundMe for raising money for charities. We’re really that kind of service for politics. So anyone watching can literally right now go to Crowdpac dot com and create a page that, that can help them raise money and start, it doesn’t even have to be an actual donation. You can start by raising pledges, if you’re thinking about running for some office because remember, a lot of people, it’s quite a big deal to take that plunge to decide, a lot of people discuss whether they might run for office. Oh I can do a better job than, than those idiots we have right now, or they may know someone, oh they, you know, you have this conversation the whole time, you know what, you should run for office. You’d be really good. But actually going from that thought to actually doing it is, is, really tough and there are lots of barriers in the way, and one of them is this idea of raising money. People think oh, you need all this money. I don’t want to ask my friends for money, it’s all a hassle. I don’t know even where to start. You can go to Crowdpac, create a page, either raise money directly so people can make a dona… if you’re already in a race and you’re already running, could be for town council or it could be for governor of your state or state legislature, doesn’t matter. There are half a million elected offices roughly in America. There are so many ways in which you can participate.

HEFFNER: And whether you want to be on the school board or the U.S. Senate,

HILTON: Literally that, exactly right.

HEFFNER: You can pursue it. Let me ask,

HILTON: And then, but you don’t have to,

HEFFNER: Yes.

HILTON: You don’t have to have, have actually even decided to do it. You can start, that, we have a,

HEFFNER: Informational pages.

HILTON: A product to … yeah, it’s called start running. What it means is that you can create a page. You can write some, something about why you’re, why you’re thinking about running. Let’s just take school board. You can say I’m thinking about running for school board. We need change in our district. This is the, this is the kind of change I’d like to see. Create a page in minutes, and then you can share that with your network, with your friends and family and so on, and they can pledge to your campaign, and the, but the pledge only turns into an actual donation,

HEFFNER: Once you announce.

HILTON: If you actually run. So this takes out all that hassle of setting up the infrastructure of a campaign and the legal work and hiring a finance person and, you don’t have to do any of that. You can literally just do it, start running, and then look, if you decide, you don’t raise much money or you don’t have, have many pledges or you just don’t think it’s for you, you’ve not lost anything and no one has lost anything ‘cause it’s just a pledge that only converts into a donation if you actually decide. So literally where, when, as you’re going through the process on Crowdpac, um, as a potential donor, we tell you very clearly your card will only be charged if whoever it is actually runs.

HEFFNER: Through this platform, you’re combatting some of the pervasive and quite injurious inequity. The nature of the platform itself. We talked about this before…

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Are you ensuring that the candidates who you’re working with are running to similarly combat inequity, or is that not a criteria you’re using?

HILTON: No, we don’t, we, we don’t have any kind of judgment about the candidates of, of any kind other than, you know, obviously we’re not gonna allow, we have some community guidelines which are the things you’d expect. We, we won’t allow candidates on our site who, who are not compliant with our community guidelines which are all about decency and, and hate and the things you’d expect. But other than that we, we’re completely open. We’re non-partisan. The thing I would say to your point is that if a candidate raises their money on Crowdpac, and raises their money from the crowd as, as our name suggests and they’re not reliant on that narrow group of big donors, what that means is that if they then succeed and if they’re elected, they will be able to act independently and act in the interests of their constituents rather than their donors, ‘cause what typically happens is that people get elected and then once they’re there in office, you know, they make all their promises, once they’re there in office, whose calls do they actually take? Their, their big donors. The donors are the people who actually control the outcome of the policymaking process once people are elected, and if we boost the number of small donors to political campaigns, then you can make the politicians less reliant on these sorts of income.

HEFFNER: And the first demonstrable,

HILTON: And that, that can, they, they can be more independent.

HEFFNER: Right.

HILTON: Not, not necessarily literally independent as in an, the independent party but independent-minded, so they can act in, in their judgment of what’s, what’s in the interests of their constituents rather than just doing what their donors tell them.

HEFFNER: I hear you, Steve. The first case study, if you will, of whether or not that model is effective and they are serving their constituency,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: And not elite donors will be 2017, 2018, it has already occurred.

HILTON: Twe—yeah, it’s, we’ve got thousands of candidates already raising money, running for offices. You know, it’s roughly a third a third a third federal, state, and local.

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

HILTON: Um, obviously we’re, we’re a new startup so we’re just getting going, and our, and we’ve got big ambitions for the 2018 cycle, particularly we, we think it’s interesting to look at those races where, ‘cause people haven’t had a choice of candidate, because you’ve got this massive other problem with our political system of gerrymandering, where you have many districts that are, that are just basically owned by one party, so often you don’t even get a choice. Another, a candidate from another party doesn’t even run. And so for example at the state level, in, in state legislatures, nearly half of all the seats are uncontested. So you’ve got people being elected to state legislatures, which have a huge impact on people’s lives, in terms of the, the, the, you know, healthcare and, and local services and a lot of the stuff that actually affects our viewers who are watching, is decided at the state level by state legislatures, and half those people, they’re literally elected ‘cause they, there’s a, there’s a process but there’s no choice. There’s no other candidate. So we’re particularly interested in focusing on those areas where, those districts where there hasn’t been a candidate, and the, and the parties have basically just, not got involved, and making it easier for, for candidates to run for office to challenge those incumbents who haven’t faced an opponent for many, many years.

HEFFNER: That’s certainly enhancing the prospective quality of our democracy if you do target those districts where…

HILTON: Yeah.

HEFFNER: There have been absentee congressmen or town board…

HILTON: Well there’s, there’s no accountability.

HEFFNER: Council members.

HILTON: If you don’t have an opponent, and, and actually there’s a large number even in Congress, in the U.S. Congress unbelievably who have had no opponent either in a primary or the general election.

HEFFNER: How do you see democracy as a vehicle for accountability in these two systems with which you have great familiarity? In particular in the UK.

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: We talked a bit off-camera about the media’s absorption of this narrative, populist revolt,

HILTON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: And now democracy under duress, through the Panama Papers and WikiLeaks as,

HILTON: Yeah.

HEFFNER: The, the blood stream in effect of media coverage during the 2015 and 2016 experience,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: From Brexit through Sanders and Trump.

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Now that we’re not in an election cycle, um, in either country,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: We’re anticipating a possible future election of, of May and Corbin again,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: We’re anticipating the midterms here besides Crowdpac, where do you think that that populist energy,

HILTON: Mm-hmm. Well I think, I think that um,

HEFFNER: Is going? Where,

HILTON: That, let, let’s just, just take the U.S. to start with. I think that, that the argument I’ve been making, and not, not just on The Next Revolution on, on Fox News but also in, in, in, when I’ve written, I wrote a book, um, that was published in the U.S. last year called “More Human,” um, and that’s all, that’s, that’s actually very connected to this as well, this, this notion that everything, you know, again, economy, the way we are on healthcare, schools, our, the way we get our food, it’s all become too big and bureaucratic and centralized, and the power’s been concentrated. And I think that what you saw as we started off discussing in the populist uprising is, is a kind of howl of rage against that. But what I’ve been trying to do is set out a, a positive agenda for turning that anger into real change, with actual policy proposals and a reform plan that will actually take that anger and turn it into something positive and constructive, and I think we’re just at the beginning of that. This is a really, really big change. As I say, the world’s been run a parti—and I, and I think it is a global phenomenon. You see it in every country. You’ve been run pretty much along the same kind of lines and the same kind of ideology behind it regardless of who’s been in power for many decades, and we’re just at the beginning of the change. So this is gonna take probably more decades before it plays itself out.

HEFFNER: When Facebook had its big IPO bonanza,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: I proposed in a column that I wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that it ought to gift one share to each user.

HILTON: Mm-hmm. Right.

HEFFNER: Well maybe there aren’t a billion shares, but it was emblematic of the problem,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Which is the Green Bay Packers of American football fame,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: That cooperative model of, of doing business, it doesn’t have to be a union per se,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: But having shared stakeholders,

HILTON: I think that’s a, a huge idea. It’s actually something that we put a lot of effort, I put a lot of effort into advancing in the UK actually when, when I was working in, in the government in Downing Street. Cooperative, cooperatives as, as we call them in the UK, I don’t know if that term is in use here but that kind of mutual ownership of businesses and enterprises that for example we really try to advance that in healthcare, where we, where we looked at parts of the UK National Health Service, whether that would be a doctor, surgery, or clinic, and, or a hospital and looked at whether we could actually mutualize it, turn it into an enterprise that was owned by the workers who actually delivered those services, and gave, give them control over, over how it was run. So I love that idea. I think it’s a perfect example of what I would call the, the, the more human agenda.

HEFFNER: That sounds like something that Sanders and Corbyn at least would be interested in.

HILTON: I, this is what I think is so interesting and this is one of the things I’m really looking to explore on the show but and actually has been a real theme in the way I’ve approached a lot of this stuff is that there are all these assumptions about what’s left and what’s right. What is Republican and what’s Democrat in, in the UK, Labor and Conservative and I think most of them are completely wrong, and most people don’t think like that. Most people have a more interesting mix of positions on different issues and I think that the real divide now is not actually left-right. It’s the elite versus the people. It’s elitism versus populism, and where do you want power to lie? Do you want power to be in the hands of a few people? Now the elites themselves wouldn’t, wouldn’t say that. Of course that sounds terrible, but their actions belie there. They do favor, for example, a regulatory approach on the economy that is relaxed about the lack of competition in different, different industries, where the antitrust provisions in the economy are completely weakened. The elites want that, because they want the power. So the left-right thing, I think what, what is, is, is kind of becoming redundant as a way of looking at politics, and so in the,

HEFFNER: I agree, but at the same…

HILTON: I just want to finish the point.

HEFFNER: Yes, please, Steve.

HILTON: On, on the show, one of the things that I’m looking to explore is that interesting overlap between the populism of the left, you could say, in the form of Bernie Sanders, and the populism on the other side. And look at those areas where there might be alignment, and in terms of the guests that we have on the show that you are often, very often they’re talking and they say you know what, we actually agree, and that’s what I’m interested in exploring, and in particular, focusing on, on, in, in, in the economic argument on what I describe as a pro-worker agenda. What can we do to improve the experience and the lives and the incomes, and the living standards of working people? And that is something that really unites people who in the political arena who might previously you would have thought of as, as opponents.

HEFFNER: You mention though the notion of collective, cooperative,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Communitarian, you’re commie, you’re commie. To some,

HILTON: But why is that? I, I completely reject that.

HEFFNER: I, I, but it is, I hope,

HILTON: I think that that is, I can make a case to you that that is a fundamentally conservative attitude. I mean I could put my conservative hat on,

HEFFNER: Of course you could.

HILTON: And say well that is what conservatism is all about, going back to Edmund Burke in the UK,

HEFFNER: I submit to you, I concur, I concur.

HILTON: The little platoons of society, that society is built on the foundations of individuals and families and communities working together, not the big centralized state, and the left-right divide is conserva… I, you’d make this argument that actually it’s conservatives who believe in those localized, small institutions,

HEFFNER: Right.

HILTON: And it’s the left who believe in a big, centralized government.

HEFFNER: Your show on Fox News,

HILTON: I think that’s an ex… that’s a caricature, but,

HEFFNER: It is a caricature,

HILTON: But I’m just making the argument to you that, that actually, what may, it’s actually a failure perhaps of politicians on the right who have allowed their ideology to be, be perceived as something that rejects that kind of localism, where in, where it’s in fact that is what it’s built on.

HEFFNER: From your experience in the American political landscape so far, what have you found to be receptiveness to your argument that you can represent the Republican agenda with the kind of philosophy you espouse?

HILTON: Well I, I, don’t, I’m not a Republican, and I don’t see myself as particularly advancing any,

HEFFNER: But, right.

HILTON: Political organization. I’m, I’m, I’m speaking for myself and the things that I believe in, when, when I’m writing or when I’m, when I’m on the media or whatever. So I, and I’m really uninterested in which party picks up those ideas and, and, and is interested in them and run with them. You know, I have meetings with people on the left, on the right. I, I’m really not partisan in that way.

HEFFNER: But the beauty of your program is that you do, it’s one of the few shows on cable that attempts that reconciliation in a way that would allow people to have a more diverse understanding of the political spectrum and even a more diverse identity of their own politics.

HILTON: Well that’s, that’s, absolutely what I’m trying to do, so I app… I appreciate that if you think that we’re getting somewhere with that, and that, that’s why I actually thought quite hard about that label, and that actually, you know, giving the, the, the theme of the show a name, positive populism, because I did want to create some kind of identity that people could, say yeah, I, I’m part of that. I, I sign up to this idea.

HEFFNER: Going back to the UK experience, now I’ve long said, I don’t know if I’ve said it on this show, that the U.S. should have a Prime Minister’s Questions.

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Um, it is a way to invigorate a spirit and fidelity to civic life, and if you were lucky enough as a young boy, as I was on CSPAN3 at two o’clock in the morning to watch Prime Minister’s Questions,

HILTON: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Then you would think the same thing. The, now maybe,

HILTON: I think, I think it’s a,

HEFFNER: There’s a vanity, yes, but there’s also this authenticity of um, you know, politics can be spirited and,

HILTON: Yeah.

HEFFNER: And at the same time fun.

HILTON: I guess it does, I mean look. I’ve, I’ve been involved in that process right at the heart of it.

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] Right hand man.

HILTON: And, and it is, though funnily enough I, I stopped, I literally stopped participating in the, in the preparation for Prime Minister’s Questions ‘cause I just thought the whole thing was such a joke, because it is completely staged. And um, it is certainly, and, and literally the, the, I’m gonna say something positive about it in a second ‘cause I do agree with you that it’s a positive thing but perhaps not what the, and, and literally the questions and answers are written in advance, they give their, literally the questions are written down and handed to the Members of Parliament on, on the, on the Conservative side if it’s a Conservative Prime Minister. Same happens when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, they write down the questions and they give it to, and they, so they’re, not all of them, but some of them. They’re, they’re called planted questions, so that’s, that’s something that goes on. You’re right that, that, that the kind of key battle within that kind of, I think it’s half an hour now, which is the five or six questions where the leader of the opposition and the Prime Minister go head to head, that is very theatrical. Obviously those questions aren’t planted because they’re coming from the other side. But they’re anticipated and prepared for and there’s a, there’s a lot of craft that goes into it. I’ll tell you the good thing about Prime Minister’s Questions, um, and, and I think all prime ministers, even if they haven’t said this publicly really I know that there, there’s, that this is what they, and not just David Cameron who I worked for but others. It’s an incredibly good way for the Prime Minster, as chief executive if you like of the government, to find out what’s going on in the government. They, they spend a huge amount of time preparing for this, this half an hour confrontation and they sit with the advisors and say, and they, and they anticipate all the questions. Say well, if they ask me about immigration, what’s going on? What’s going on with our policy? Why hasn’t it, it’s a really good mechanism if you like for a kind of internal audit of what’s going on, and, and, and all the departments of the government sort of scurry around. They’re all, they literally, the, that morning when they’re preparing, they think oh my God, we’ve got to be at our desks in case we get a call from 10 Downing Street to say what’s happening to this policy or that policy? It’s actually a really effective tool, really effective management tool.

HEFFNER: Well you’re talking to a nation that elected The Apprentice President, so that I think that Prime Minister’s Questions brings the theatricality to public policy,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: As you suggest, in a way that is so refreshing and,

HILTON: Mm-hmm. Well it’s, again, not to be too down on it,

HEFFNER: As a young, no but I, I understand it’s staged, in part,

HILTON: The other thing it does is, is, is that it, it gives you a very strong sense of the character of the two leaders who are there, and that’s an important part of politics and that’s an important part of, of government actually is the, the character of a leader matters, and that is revealed in that exchange, that’s true.

HEFFNER: That’s revealed and I think it shows the true colors of the, the would-be candidates, the Parliamentarians, and frankly, if Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer had that opportunity,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: With Donald Trump or vice versa, I mean it would have brought folks to the table with Barack Obama. Barack Obama would have loved that. I mean he would have indulged in that in a way that I think would have earned him respect.

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Among Republicans, and when you think of The Next Revolution,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Of our politics, you want it to be something that is unifying in looking at goal-oriented,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Pro-social outcomes.

HILTON: Yeah I agree with that, that’s why I like to think of the, I, I’ve used this term, you know, the, the, the positive populism and the, and this way of thinking about politics is very pragmatic. I think one of the problems is that we’ve had too much ideology and that traps politicians into thinking about problems in a certain way. And then the don… and their reliance on the, and it goes back to money, and their reliance on their donors who themselves are often very ideologically driven. It captures the politicians and they’re trapped in these, in these positions that many of them understand aren’t necessarily right and they would like to compromise and they would like to reach out, and then it goes back to the other conversation we had about the gerrymandering, because they’re, what they’re really worried about is not a challenge from the other party but a challenge from within their own party from the extreme end of it. So all these problems actually interconnect.

HEFFNER: Well Steve, I think we’re gonna have to trade places, because I’d love to morph over there and watching your election night coverage most recently on the BBC livestream on YouTube, it is most civilized and of course you are funny. I mean Americans, we, we have our Larry Davids and Jerry Seinfelds of, of the contemporary age, but I think that your politicians, your constituencies,

HILTON: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Prepare for and expect a, a decency, and part of that decency in the UK as exemplified in those Prime Minister’s Questions is good cheer.

HILTON: [LAUGHS] Okay. I’m not sure I would, you’re probably seeing the best of it, let’s put it like that.

HEFFNER: That’s true. At some point in the future, we’ll exchange those citizenships,

HILTON: Right.

HEFFNER: Or we’ll, we’ll have dual citizenship and we’ll, we’ll explore those questions. We’ve run out of time, Steve, but I hope we’ll continue this exchange,

HILTON: For sure.

HEFFNER: Because it’s been most fruitful and I appreciate your time, your wit, your charm, your candor on the air.

HILTON: Great to be with you, thank you so much.

HEFFNER: Thank you. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful, witty excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.