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Judd Legum on following the money in an era of Republican extremism
"These major corporations are giving to both sides, but when they talk about, for instance, women's rights ... they don't talk about both sides of that issue."
Thanks for checking out this edition of Public Notice. I’m on a bit of a baby break following the birth of my son Owen, but I’m ramping my publication schedule back up in the days to come. This is the first of three newsletters this week. I’ll be back with the second Wednesday, then at the end of the week I’ll have coverage of the first primetime hearing of the January 6 committee. Cheers — Aaron
I worked for Judd Legum at ThinkProgress (RIP), where, in addition to running the place, he wrote a lot of insightful political and media commentary. Judd was the fearless leader of the newsroom, so when he announced he was leaving in the summer of 2018 to publish a newsletter on Substack it was a huge and surprising blow, in part because most us didn’t even know what Substack was back then.
Suffice it to say that the move worked out quite well. Not only is most everyone in media familiar with Substack these days, but Judd’s newsletter, Popular Information, has blazed a trail as one of the successful political publications on the platform. Popular Information’s brand of accountability journalism demonstrates that Substacks don’t have to traffic in conspiracy and contrarianism to attract large and devoted readerships — you can do it with quality old-fashioned journalism.
So last month, I decide to ring up Legum to talk about the evolution of Popular Information into what it is today, following the money in an era where mainstream Republican positions are increasingly at odds with large corporations’ publicly stated values, and a couple big stories he’s tracking as we head into the midterm elections.
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
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When we worked together you were doing really good political commentary and analysis, but it was different from the stuff you’re doing now. Tell me about your journey to the type of accountability journalism you’re doing these days for Popular Information. Did you set out to do this style of coverage in your newsletter, or did you find a niche for it as you went?
One of the reasons I'm doing this work more now than I did when we were working together at ThinkProgress is that I just have a lot more time because I don't have the management responsibilities. I have a couple of people who are very good working with me as research assistants, but in general, I'm able to spend my time doing the stuff I really like to do and think is the most valuable.
I can't say that I knew when I launched [the newsletter] — which was about four years ago — that I would be doing this in-depth work around FEC filings and SEC filings and this kind of accountability journalism. But over time, as I've experimented with it, I found that it was the content I most enjoyed doing myself, but also that got the best response from my audience.
What does your newsgathering process look like? It seems you’ve settled into a nice rhythm of digging into stories that you can cover iteratively but follow for weeks or months at a time. What’s your balance between following up on tips versus actively searching for story ideas?
It's usually a combination. I found that once you dig into a topic, then the tips will start coming.
Just to give you a recent example of how that played out: We did a project about the corporate donations to the three main political committees that support anti-abortion candidates.
Obviously, this is relevant now that we're facing, fairly imminently, Roe v. Wade almost certainly being overturned. So we did that project, which wasn't at all a tip. It was just an idea of looking at what's in the news and seeing how we can expose how this came to be. Following the money. How did the people who got in power, who are making this happen, get into power?
But once we put that out and it moves around a little bit and people understand that we're interested in that issue — interested in how corporations maybe facilitated this and are involved and are responding — I got a tip a couple of days ago that we published this morning, about a large PR firm and how they were advising their clients, their corporate clients, not to comment on [abortion rights].
So had we not done that previous piece, I don't think we would've gotten that tip because the tipster might not have known that we were interested in this topic. And so that's the way it consistently works. Sometimes I get a tip out of the blue, but mostly we plant a flag in a topic and try to do some work on it and then people will come out of the woodwork who want to share information.
As you’ve documented, corporations are in the habit of hedging their bets by supporting politicians on both sides of the aisle. To cite one example, you recently wrote about 13 corporations, including Amazon and Google, that spent $15 million supporting anti-abortion politicians since 2016. Do you think this “both sides” approach to campaign contributions is becoming less viable as mainstream GOP positions become more extreme?
In a lot of cases, yes. Because, in almost all cases, these major corporations are giving to both sides, but when they talk about, for instance, women's rights or women's empowerment, they don't talk about both sides of that issue. They say they're for it. And so I don't think you can “both sides” your political donations and present that as consistent with your stated policies.
At least in the past, giving to both sides functioned as a shield for corporations to avoid taking responsibility for who they're giving their money to. But the idea that these donations cancel each other out, as we see, is just not true. We're going to be faced with the situation, likely within weeks, where nearly all abortions are banned in 20-plus states. That's not a situation where everything just cancels each other out.
Change is happening and a part of that change is being facilitated by corporations who are funding the politicians who are taking extreme positions — like we see in Texas right now, with a six-week abortion ban that's enforced by private citizens filing lawsuits against people who help women receive an abortion.
Every case is unique, but do you foresee corporations adjusting by stopping their donations to anti-abortion politicians? Or perhaps some are actually taking the opposite approach and embracing more of a right-wing agenda.
I know you wrote about this in connection with January 6, and corporations that promised to stop donating to Republicans who voted to overturn the election results. What has your experience working in this space told you about how corporations respond to these pressures?
Well, I think on the issue of abortion and reproductive rights, we haven't seen any change in donations. Now, maybe that changes after Roe gets overturned. Maybe there's more sensitivity toward supporting politicians at the state level especially who will now be pushing stricter and stricter abortion bans. But we haven't seen that yet.
We've seen very little corporate engagement on abortion rights. In fact, there's only really a handful of companies that I'm aware of, as we're talking right now, who have even put out statements about this draft decision. So we haven't really seen much.
On January 6, there was a very big response. Hundreds of corporations taking action, which was fairly unprecedented. Now, we're a year plus out from that and I think the results have been, I would say, mixed.
As of January of this year, most of the companies that made pledges stuck with them. There's been some backsliding since then. As you get closer to Election Day, more companies are deciding to donate to the members of Congress that voted to overturn the election. But I do think that scenario, the way that it played out, shows that these corporations aren't immune from pressure when how they're spending their money politically is exposed. It doesn't mean they're going to react to every report, and I think certainly abortion is a lot more fraught for these corporations than January 6 was, as far as [the potential cost of] taking a stand. But I think it's going to be something they're going to have to grapple with for many years now because the politics of this has changed.
I’m fascinated by developments in Florida, which I know you’ve written about as well, where the governor is punishing Disney because it belatedly spoke out against the “don’t say gay” bill. Does DeSantis’s crusade against one of the state’s largest employers and economic drivers say something about how stoking the culture war is becoming even more important for Republicans than economic or financial considerations?
There's been a number of Republicans in different states — we saw this play out with the voter restriction law in Georgia, saw it play out in Texas with both voting and abortion — where elected officials are very willing to both threaten and then, in the case of Florida, actually follow through and punish corporations that oppose their agenda. And that's definitely more important to them than maintaining good relations with those corporations.
In Georgia, Delta, which is based in the state, spoke out against the voting law there, and the Georgia House of Representatives voted to repeal a tax credit that's very important to them for jet fuel. It didn't end up passing the Senate, but that was a shot across the bow. Same thing with companies that were speaking out against the voting bill in Texas. There were amendments that were proposed, that didn't end up passing, that said any company that's voicing opposition to this is going to be ineligible for tax credits.
So in Florida, I think it's about making an example of Disney — who by the way, did not do anything useful in opposing the legislation there. There was a memo that leaked that I reported on, and others reported on, where the Disney CEO, Bob Chapek, was saying very specifically that Disney didn't want to be involved. Then their employees revolted and said it wasn’t acceptable, and they ended up switching their position after the bill had already been sent to DeSantis's desk.
But now, what's important to DeSantis is to essentially discourage other corporations from speaking out, and any other corporations from getting in the way of his agenda. That's what they're prioritizing. And I don't think it's just DeSantis. It's Republican politicians around the country.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about Republicans, so let’s close with a question about Democrats. Heading into the midterms, what’s one area where the connection between Democratic policy and the party’s financial interests is problematic?
One that definitely applies to the left, and the right, is defense spending. If you look at the proposed defense spending that Biden put out this year, and it's likely to be supported by most Democrats in Congress — the prior year, Congress proposed a figure, and then Congress went $25 or $30 billion above what Biden even proposed, and now Biden is taking on another large increase.
I think it reflects the financial sway of defense contractors and how they are really exempted — and this is something that Democrats are very complicit in — from the kind of financial constraints, and the financial give and take that's applied to every other kind of spending.
Whether it's the child tax credit, paid family leave — these other things that really should be priorities — we're having these discussions about how to pay for them, how can we raise taxes, but defense spending gets to continue to go up regardless. And I think that's something Democrats have not begun to grapple with.