By John Nichols. This article was first published on The Nation.
Occupy Wall Street demonstrators marking the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, January 20, 2012. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
Four years after an activist majority on the United States Supreme Court struck down barriers to the buying of elections by multinational corporations—with the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that signaled an intention to dismantle remaining restraints on money in politics—a broad-based movement has emerged to undo the damage done by the Court.
This is a coalition that refuses to tinker around the edges of the crisis.
It is boldly demanding that the US Constitution be amended—a reform sufficient to prevent the High Court from transforming American democracy into a dollarocracy.
“I’ll grant that it’s not easy. Amending the Constitution should not be easy,” says Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, which has been a key player in the movement. “But in just four years, we’ve brought what many deemed a pipe dream into the mainstream.”
People for the American Way president Michael Keegan agrees.
While there is no question that “the deeply misguided Citizens United ruling four years ago brought immeasurable harm to our democracy,” Keegan says, “it also inspired a re-energized national movement to get big money out of politics.”
That movement has accomplished more than all but the most optimistic reformers could have imagined on January 21, 2010.
Sixteen American states have formally demanded that Congress recognize that the Constitution must be amended in order to re-establish the basic American premise that “money is property and not speech, and [that] the Congress of the United States, state legislatures and local legislative bodies should have the authority to regulate political contributions and expenditures…”
Six states made the call for corporate accountability in a three-month period last year, making 2013 a banner year for a movement that began with little attention and little in the way of institutional support following the US Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling.
Support for an amendment now stretches from coast to coast, with backing (in the form of legislative resolutions or statewide referendum results) from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia. The District of Columbia is also supportive of the move to amend, as are roughly 500 municipalities, from Liberty, Maine, to Los Angeles, California—where 77 percent of voters backed a May 2013, referendum instructing elected representatives to seek an amendment establishing that “there should be limits on political campaign spending and that corporations should not have the constitutional rights of human beings.”
The numbers will expand in 2014, as grassroots activists make organized demands for action in hundreds of communities and more than a dozen states. In Wisconsin, to mark the four-year anniversary, legislators and activist groups such as United Wisconsin, ramped up their campaign for a statewide referendum on the amendment issue. In Washington state, WAmend activists have launched a massive statewide campaign to get the issue on the November 2014, ballot.
“Why does it matter how many states call for an amendment? Ultimately, an amendment will have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. That’s thirty-eight. Four more, and we’re halfway there,” says Public Citizen’s Weissman, who is working with a burgeoning Corporate Reform Coalition of more than seventy groups nationwide. “But before that, an amendment must be passed by a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the US Congress. And one of the most effective ways to show a state’s representatives and senators in Washington, DC, that there is popular demand for an amendment is to pass a resolution back home.”
The work of national groups such as Public Citizen, Common Cause, Free Speech for People and Move to Amend is groundbreaking. Done in conjunction with grassroots coalitions that are now active from northern Alaska to the tip of the Florida Keys, the work is far more dramatic than most of the initiatives you’ll see from the Democratic or Republican parties—which don’t do much but fund-raise—and various and sundry groupings on the right and left. Yet, for the most part, news of reform victories are afforded scant attention even from supposedly sympathetic media.
As such, the fantasy that says reform is impossible persists.
Just imagine if the movement to amend big money out of politics got as much attention, say, as the wrangling over IRS “targeting”—a classic money-in-politics controversy—or Chris Christie’s latest scandal.
Just imagine if all Americans knew that calls for an amendment are coming not just from traditional progressive reformers but from Republican legislators and honest conservatives at the state and national levels.
Free Speech for People highlights the fact that dozens of Republican legislators have backed calls for an amendment to overturn not just the Citizens United ruling but other barriers to the regulation of money in politics. With backing from third-party and independent legislators, as well, the passage of the state resolutions highlights what the group refers to as “a growing trans-partisan movement…calling for the US Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) to be overturned, through one or more amendments to the US Constitution.”
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North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones Jr., who maintains one of the most conservative voting records in the House, has signed on as a co-sponsor of one of several proposed amendments. Why did Jones join roughly 150 other members of Congress in calling for constitutional change? “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed,” says the congressman. “The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.”
Congressman Jones is noting something that too many DC insiders, be they members of Congress or pundits commenting on Congress, fail to recognize: millions of Americans are already engaged on this issue. They are organizing for, marching for, writing letters for, sending e-mails for, testifying for and voting for the fundamental reform that is an essential building block in any movement to restore faith in the political process and renew American democracy: a constitutional amendment declaring, as the Oregon legislature proposed last summer, that “based on the American value of fair play, leveling the playing field and ensuring that all citizens, regardless of wealth, have an opportunity to have their political views heard, there is a valid rationale for regulating political spending.”
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Author Thomas Frank says, “This is the black book of politics-as-industry, an encyclopedic account of money’s crimes against democracy. The billionaires have hijacked our government, and anyone feeling complacent after the 2012 election should take sober note of Nichols’s and McChesney’s astonishing finding: It’s only going to get worse. Dollarocracy is an impressive achievement.”