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Bill Moyers on Dark Money, the Attack on Voting Rights & How Racism Stills Drives Our Politics

StoryJanuary 27, 2014
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Legendary broadcaster Bill Moyers joins us to discuss his latest investigation, which explores how the influence of large, untraceable political donations known as “dark money” have become the greatest threat to democracy in the United States. In “State of Conflict: North Carolina,” Moyers and his team explore how wealthy right-wing donors are greatly influencing state politics. “This is more than North Carolina,” Moyers says. “It’s a harbinger of how organized money is the greatest threat to democracy because it unbalances the equilibrium. Democracy is supposed to check the excesses of private power and private greed, and if money disestablishes that equilibrium, we’re in trouble.” Moyers, the host of “Moyers & Company,” also talks about the long fight to secure voting rights. Fifty years ago, he was serving in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration at the time of the “Freedom Summer” campaign in 1964 and the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Moyers has won more than 30 Emmy Awards. He also was a founding organizer of the Peace Corps, served as press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson, and was a publisher of Newsday and senior correspondent for CBS News.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Bill Moyers, the legendary broadcaster and host of Moyers & Company. Earlier this month, his program, Moyers & Company, aired the documentary report, State of Conflict: North Carolina. He is the former host of Bill Moyers Journal. He has won more than 30 Emmy Awards. He’s also a founding organizer of the Peace Corps, press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson, publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent for CBS News. His most recent book is Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, as I hope it continues right here.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Bill. It’s great to have you with us.

BILL MOYERS: My pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Quite a report, and it isn’t even the whole thing. You go on in this report on the state of conflict in North Carolina to talk about the whole issue of voting rights.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, North Carolina now, because of this new far-right government—and these are not your father’s Republicans, they are really right-wing Republicans adhering to the fundamentalism of the right—they went after voting rights. It was one of the first objectives they fulfilled when they took power. And they now have the most restrictive voting rights in the country—a very complicated process of getting IDs that you have to have. They’ve redistricted in a way that packs African Americans into three districts, so that it’s hard to argue “one man, one vote” is happening down there. And the Justice Department has challenged the North Carolina state voting laws. But they are very restrictive, and they’re designed to perpetuate the Republican rule and to make it harder for the elderly, for the young, for minorities to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the things they realized very quickly was that a lot of the voters who were voting early were voting Democrat, so they’re cracking down on the number of days that you can take—the number of days you can vote.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, there—for a while, it looked as if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, but when the early votes were finally counted, the margin went to—victory went to Obama. So, they don’t like that, and they’re doing away with early voting.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why did you focus on North Carolina, of all the states? Is it really so singular, so unique?

BILL MOYERS: Well, it’s very compact, what’s happening down there, and it’s very recent. This has happened to a considerable extent in Wisconsin. These are battleground states, where the right wing and the conservatives and the business and wealthy communities are collaborating to make sure they don’t lose again. North Carolina is an interesting state in and of itself. It’s a blue state, it’s a red state, it’s a purple state. Obama carried it by a whisker in 2008, Romney by a whisker in 2012. It goes back and forth. Jesse Helms, the, to use your term, legendary right-wing senator from North Carolina, was simultaneously in office with a progressive United States senator. It’s a purple state, really, that goes this way. So the Republicans, the right wing, are focusing on it. The Democrats ought to be focusing on it, but they’ve had their problems down there with corruption and scandals that played into Art Pope’s hands.

But there are three reasons for this story. One, it’s very clear what’s happening in North Carolina. Second, it’s a paradigm, a harbinger of what’s happening in other states. And then, most important, it really reveals what dark money is doing to American politics. So much of this money that has flowed into North Carolina comes from untraceable and unaccountable sources. They don’t know in North Carolina who’s funding the redistricting. They don’t know who’s funding these campaigns against their opponents. It’s coming from national sources, from Republican sources in Washington, from very wealthy people around the country. And that is, of course, flying in the face of the fundamental tenet of democracy, which is, we should know who’s buying our government.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, there is a North Carolinian in this, and it is Art Pope himself, also close to the Koch brothers.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, he is a—he’s been called a kingmaker as well as a king, because he has used his money—he’s a smart man, very shrewd, very intelligent, and very ruthless in how he uses his money. And as Jane Mayer, The New Yorker reporter, terrific reporter, as you and I both know, says at the end of the broadcast, this is more than North Carolina; this shows what a wealthy individual can do in any state where he or she is willing to put their money into politics in this way. So it’s a harbinger, as I say, of how our democracy—you know, organized money is the greatest threat to democracy because it unbalances the equilibrium. Democracy is supposed to check the excesses of private power and private greed. And if money disestablishes that equilibrium, we’re in trouble.

And the only answer—as we’ve seen in this film, the only answer to organized money is organized people. And that’s what really at first drew me to North Carolina. I’ve had a history there. I was on the board of Wake Forest University for years. I was in—I have good, close friends there who teach and who write and who work there. And I know something about North Carolina. And when I saw what was happening on these Moral Mondays, I knew nothing about them until the press stories began to come out. These people were gathering, not spontaneously, because Reverend Barber, who is himself a shrewd cat, a cool cat, as they say—I knew what he was doing in organizing these. The first arrest came in the summer, and then the news started—the news media started paying attention. It was obvious that people were becoming alarmed, agitated and organized in response to the buyout of North Carolina. And that remains the most hopeful—whether you’re a progressive conservative—a progressive Republican or a progressive liberal Democrat, you have to know that the only way we’re going to preserve our democracy is to fight this organized money. And that’s what the Moral Monday protesters are doing.

AMY GOODMAN: And they’re trying to plan the largest protest ever yet, and that will be February 8th. But there is a distinction sometimes between the progressives who are out there on the streets, who are getting arrested—more than a thousand got arrested in 2013—and the Democratic Party of North Carolina.

BILL MOYERS: That’s true. And this, of course, has played into the hands of the right wing. Progressives, of course, are more progressive than partisan. Democrats want Democrats to be re-elected, even if they’re centrists or center-right Democrats. So, there’s resentment in North Carolina among some traditional Democrats to Art—to Reverend Barber. He has now emerged as the progressive leader—not the Democratic leader, because he’s not a partisan in this respect. And so, there’s conflict between progressives and Democrats who are not progressives in North Carolina. This is an old—an old story, as you know.

The right wing solved it by this enormous confomity that they brought to their movement 25 and 30 years ago. The tea party was together enough to take over the Republican Party. Progressives are not together enough to take over, step by step, precinct by precinct, the Democratic Party. And that’s a source of conflict. And, of course, as I say in the documentary and said a moment ago, Democrats had some corruption and some scandals a few years ago when several went to jail. And that’s been a problem. That played right into the right’s hands, and it’s created a further rift between progressives and Democrats.

AMY GOODMAN: Reproductive rights also very much under attack. Fascinating to see Governor McCrory saying—you know, very simple answer when asked if he would be supporting more restrictions against abortion, in one of the debates, and his answer was “None,” very clearly stated, but that hasn’t been the case.

BILL MOYERS: He read the tea leaves and saw that when he got into office—he was elected with the help of these conservatives, and of course he has to appease them in order to be re-elected, if he runs again. And one of the first changes in his agenda was to go against what he had said earlier and sign the most restrictive abortion bill, reproductive rights bill—anti-reproductive-rights bill in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, as you also clip, make an excerpt of in this documentary, The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi spoke to a North Carolina county precinct Republican chair named Don Yelton about North Carolina passing one of the most restrictive voter suppression bills in the nation.

DON YELTON: The bottom line is the law is not racist.

AASIF MANDVI: Of course the law is not racist, and you are not racist.

DON YELTON: Well, I have been called a bigot before. Let me tell you something. You don’t look like me, but I think I’ve treated you the same as I would anybody else.


DON YELTON: Matter of fact, one of my best friends is black.

AASIF MANDVI: So, one of your best friends—

DON YELTON: One of my best friends.

AASIF MANDVI: —is black.


AASIF MANDVI: And there’s more.

DON YELTON: When I was a young man, you didn’t call a black a black; you called him a Negro. I had a picture one time of Obama sitting on a stump as a witch doctor, and I posted that on Facebook. For your information, I was making fun of my white half of Obama, not the black half. And now, you have a black person using the term nigger this, nigger that, and it’s OK for them to do it.

AASIF MANDVI: You know that we can hear you, right?


AASIF MANDVI: OK, you know that, that you—you know that we can hear you.


AASIF MANDVI: OK, all right.

Then I found out the real reason for the law.

DON YELTON: The law is going to kick the Democrats in the butt.

AASIF MANDVI: Wow! An executive GOP committee member just admitted that this law isn’t designed to hurt black people; it’s designed to hurt Democrats.

DON YELTON: If it hurts a bunch of college kids that’s too lazy to get up off their bohunkus and go get a photo ID, so be it.

AASIF MANDVI: Right, right.

DON YELTON: If it hurts the whites, so be it. If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that wants the government to give them everything, so be it.

AASIF MANDVI: And it just so happens that a lot of those people vote Democrat.


AMY GOODMAN: That was from Comedy Central, The Daily Show. Almost immediately after the interview aired on The Daily Show, Don Yelton was forced to resign his position in the Republican Party. Bill Moyers?

BILL MOYERS: It’s sad that there are so many people in this country who cannot escape the prison of the past, and race is very much at the heart of this—particularly in the old Confederate states, this right-wing resurgence that we’re facing now. There are very few who speak as openly and as blatantly and as honestly as Don Yelton. He’s telling the interviewer, “Yeah, this is why I did what I did.” Many do without revealing their motives. And if you track the voting patterns, if you track what’s happening in the country, you see that unspoken racism is still driving a large segment of our politics.

And fortunately, he outed himself and reminded us that the Republican Party in the South is the party that took over after the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when President Johnson said to me, “I think we’ve just handed the South to the Republicans for my lifetime and yours,” because the racists who had been Democrats all those years until this transformation in American politics through the civil rights legislation and the civil rights movement—until this transformation brought them over, the Democrats had been the racist party in the South. I grew up in the South, and I remember all my Democratic friends were essentially racist. So, it’s changed, and Yelton was speaking a truth that dare not be heard. But he did say it, and we know it.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Bill, we just came from Sundance Film Festival in Park City. Freedom Summer was one of the documentaries, from the remarkable filmmaker Stanley Nelson, and it’s about—this summer coming up is the 50th anniversary of the summer of 1964, when the three civil rights activists, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, were killed. Of course, they were named; there were others who we don’t know who died. It was the summer of organizing in Mississippi, and it was the summer of the Freedom Democratic—the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And you were the press secretary of Lyndon Johnson. What was it like to be there when Fannie Lou Hamer was taking Lyndon Johnson on at the 1964 Atlantic City Democratic convention? He did not want that voice, who wanted to integrate the Mississippi Democratic Party delegation to the convention, to be heard, and so he gave a speech at the same time, so the cameras would switch from her—as they did, reliably, giving voice to power—to President Johnson.

BILL MOYERS: What a dramatic and traumatic moment it was, a riveting moment. By the way, I didn’t become press secretary for two years. I was 30 that summer, and I was actually President Johnson’s domestic policy adviser, working on civil rights, voting rights and politics. And it was a—it was a dramatic moment. It was an unfortunate moment, too, because I wish, in retrospect, that we had embraced Fannie Lou Hamer and realized that’s where the future of the Democratic Party lay.

AMY GOODMAN: Could it kind of be like North Carolina Democrats today?

BILL MOYERS: Yes, exactly, exactly. But here was Johnson’s predicament. He wanted to carry as many Southern states as he could. He was from Texas. He wanted to bring progressive, moderate Democrats along with him in his campaign for ’64. And had he embraced Fannie Lou Hamer, the morally right thing to do, it would have been, he thought, politically costly. So he hammered out this compromise, which was not satisfactory to either side, in order to preserve his political prowess and his political opportunity to carry the South. And we did carry several states in the South in 1964 that I think probably he would have lost if he had not made this compromise. But in retrospect, of course—and not even in retrospect, at the time, the moral embrace would have been the right one to do, and that would have been to bring the Mississippi leadership, the Democratic—the black and civil rights leaders of Mississippi into the Democratic Party.

AMY GOODMAN: He almost resigned then, didn’t he? The pressure so enormous, at least that’s what comes out in Freedom Summer. He was saying—he was wondering if he would throw in the towel then.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, he was torn between winning and doing the right thing. Lyndon Johnson had never been an outstanding proponent of voting—of civil rights when he was a senator from Texas or the majority leader, but his heart was always in the right place, because as a young man he was a New Deal congressman from Texas, and that was trying to embrace a larger constituency.

AMY GOODMAN: He had just signed the Civil Rights Act earlier that summer.

BILL MOYERS: 1964, that’s right. And then suddenly he was faced with this moral-versus-political choice, and it really created a great tension in him. He was torn by what he had done at the same time. And he wasn’t sure that winning re-election was worth the moral price he had paid for it. But he got over that and ran a hearty campaign, and of course received the largest plurality in the country up until then in a presidential race.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bill, before we end the show, I wanted to ask about what your plans are. This year you turn 80.


AMY GOODMAN: You announced in October that Bill Moyers & Company, you’re going to be ending it. You got an avalanche of response. People—the force more powerful than any one person, the people spoke, and they said, “You can’t end this show.” Bill Moyers—

BILL MOYERS: Well, enough people spoke to make me think that I was leaving—I was going AWOL in the middle of the battle. And, you know, when you’ve been at it 40-some-odd years—I’ve been a broadcaster for 41 years—you do have somewhat loyal constituents. Many of them are aging out, dying off. I mean, young journalists have no idea of what’s happened in broadcasting over the last 40 years. They’re into the web and so forth. But there were enough loyal fans, constituents around the country. They wrote—4,000 or 5,000 letters came to us, emails. And I had to face myself shaving in the morning and saying, “Are you abandoning these people?” So we came back for one more year.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s great to see you coming back with documentaries like these. What’s your next?

BILL MOYERS: We’re working on a—we’re looking at Ayn Rand’s influence today. Ayn Rand was—is the libertarian, the famous writer, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, a libertarian who celebrates the virtue of money and says the—has had an enormous influence over American politics and is even popular today. I think Atlas Shrugged sells something like 150-200,000 copies. It’s being taught. Her philosophy is being taught in universities funded by Koch brother organizations and others. And so we’re looking at Rand Paul, for example, who’s a likely candidate for president in—

AMY GOODMAN: Is he named after her?

BILL MOYERS: I don’t know. They say not, but there’s some kind of a convergence there, because when he was 17, his father, Ron Paul, gave him a set of Ayn Rand’s novels. So we’re working on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we look forward to the commentary. Bill, thanks so much for joining us, legendary broadcaster, host of Moyers & Company. Earlier this month, his program Moyers & Company aired a documentary called State of Conflict: North Carolina, and we’ll link to the full documentary at

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