Capitol Alert

‘Nobody is listening:’ Robert Reich’s new Netflix film focuses on political frustration

Victoria Dzorka was one of about 1,700 people to show up at a March town hall hosted by Rep. Tom McClintock in El Dorado Hills, a rural town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, east of Sacramento.

The 26-year-old had been recently diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer, and she wanted to know what the Republican congressman would do to to ensure she’d have access to the treatments and medications she needed.

Dzorka at the time lived in the nearby town of Cameron Park, which falls into McClintock’s district. In an interview, she said she felt disappointed by his response. Like each of California’s 14 House Republicans, McClintock defended his party’s plans to repeal and replace Obamacare.

“The reality is I was benefiting from every major provision of the Affordable Care Act,” Dzorka said. “I wanted to hear from him what he planned to do to protect people like me.”

Dzorka is part of the wave of fresh political activism that has swept California and the nation since the election of President Donald Trump. She’s briefly profiled in a new documentary by Robert Reich, former labor secretary under Bill Clinton and professor of public policy at UC Berkeley.

In the film “Saving Capitalism,” Reich seeks answers for the deep anger and frustration voiced by Americans in many parts of the country, from El Dorado Hills to Houston to suburban Salt Lake City and Detroit.

“People are worried about their jobs; they’re worried about their wages. They feel like they don’t have a voice in deciding anything that pertains to them, politically or economically,” Reich says in the film. “I pick this up everywhere I go. Americans all over the country are asking, ‘How can we make our voices heard?’ 

Reich, who has emerged as a hero of the left, argues that beyond the red-blue divide, political discontent on display across the country is rooted in inequality and economic upheaval.

The film, started before Donald Trump won the presidency, takes aim at the outsized influence of money in politics. Reich travels to conservative states to ask working class Americans which direction they think the country should be headed. He seeks input from African Americans in the deep south, and asks his Berkeley graduate students to weigh in.

People are “desperately wanting to be heard and nobody is listening,” Reich says.

Many say they feel under-represented in statehouses and in Washington.

Dzorka is one of them.

“I am concerned on a daily basis about how things are progressing. I felt my representative does not represent my interests,” she said, explaining why she showed up at the McClintock town hall. “It’s not just health care. I’m concerned about immigration and my husband’s ability to come here. I work with refugees, so I see firsthand how the swipe of a pen can impact a person’s ability to enter the country.

“All around, I’m concerned, and I feel more aware now of the impact that those decisions at the top can have on the daily lives of individuals,” she said. “I thought the storyline (in the film) was important. We live in a society where money talks, unfortunately, and money is rooted in who is able to influence elections.”

The film is part rallying cry for citizen engagement, part economic theory, part history lesson. In the hourlong documentary, Reich explores the dynamics of money and power, and its intersection with American politics. He looks at influence, in the form of campaign contributions, and how it shapes lawmakers’ decisions.

“People know the game is ‘rigged,’ but they don’t know how it’s rigged,” Reich says. “There is a vicious cycle that has set in. ... The vicious cycle is that as income and wealth go to the top, so does political power.

“As political power goes to the top, the top has more and more ability to influence the rules of the game,” he adds.

Reich alludes to today’s economic struggles: mounting student loan debt, soaring housing costs, jobs with wages that have not kept pace with the cost of living. The angst is playing out at town halls across the country – hosted mostly by Republicans – as the 2018 midterm elections near.

Suzanne Eckes-Wahl, a filmmaker who also lives in McClintock’s district, was also at the El Dorado Hills town hall this past spring. She’d attended McClintock’s previous town halls and had been filming the raucous protests when she was approached to help with Reich’s film.

Some of her footage was used in the documentary.

“It just seemed like an important moment,” Eckes-Wahl said. “I didn’t know what I’d do with it, I just knew it was important with all this energy that we’re seeing so I wanted to document what McClintock said.”

McClintock is both a staunch supporter and fierce defender of Trump, having voiced support for his immigration proposals, efforts to get rid of Obamacare and casting doubt on human-caused climate change.

Since his first town hall of the year in Roseville, people like Eckes-Wahl have showed up to voice concerns over Trump’s stance on immigration, health care, the environment and the Republican tax plan.

“It has to do with who McClintock is,” Eckes-Wahl said. “Our region is 200 miles long, and we stretch from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. It is one of the most beautiful and diverse regions in the country, yet Tom McClintock does not believe climate change is real. That was the real kicker for me.”

Reich cheers the activism.

“Citizenship is more than just voting and jury duty and paying taxes,” he says. “Citizenship really is participating and engaging and making a ruckus when a ruckus is necessary.”

Activist 101

Robert Reich’s pointers on how to be a citizen activist, noted at the end of the film:

No. 1: “You’ve got to be tenacious and patient. Social change does not happen quickly.”

No. 2: “Talk to people who disagree with you. Get out of your bubble. Maybe they will convince you that you are wrong, or you’ll convince them that they are wrong, but you’ve got to talk to them.”

No. 3: “Have some fun.”