Watch Out Plutocrats, the Progressive Pro-Democracy Movement Is Savvy and Gearing Up to Take on Citizens United

November 25, 2012
Steven Rosenfeld

There's a sophisticated pushback against corporate power in the works.
November 23, 2012  | 

It didn’t look like the movie Lincoln, which opened the same weekend. Instead of crusty men in musty rooms, half the speakers were women and the setting was a bright modern law school auditorium. But the challenge at hand was equally great. In Lincoln’s day, it was the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Today, it's repairing American democracy for the 21st century.

Last Saturday in Los Angeles saw the most detailed, ambitious and encouraging discussion of exactly how to approach campaign finance and lobbying reform that I’ve seen in two decades of reporting on the decline of American democracy. There were constitutional solutions—not one but several—for the problems created by the Supreme Court. There was a long list of what Congress, the White House, federal agencies and state legislatures could do now. And there was growing evidence that millions of Americans of all political stripes want a renewed democracy—as surely as those multitudes who waited hours to vote on November 6.

A century ago, Progressive reformers reshaped American democracy by using every avenue available to them to take away power from that era's robber barons and political insiders. Today, after the most expensive American election ever, democracy advocates have launched a modern counterpart with a bold agenda, new strategies, new coalitions and a growing grassroots base dedicated to unwinding political corruption’s many facets.

“A cancer does not cure itself. And this won’t be cured by dinky little reforms, tiny little ideas, tinkering, crumbs at the table, who are being proposed by people who think if we just do a little switch we will magically change this system,” said Harvard Law School’s Larry Lessig, opening A 28th Amendment? conference at UCLA Law School. “What it needs is a movement unlike any we’ve seen since the Civil Rights Movement or the Progressive Movement, taking on a corruption greater than anything we have seen since we ousted George III.”

“It’s not just money in politics—that’s one thing we have to fix—no question; we will not survive as a democracy, as a republic if we don’t fix that,” said Jeffrey Clement, co-founder of FreeSpeechForPeople. “But we will not survive as an Earth, as a democracy, as a republic, if we don’t figure out how to make corporations work for the people and be able to democratically, small ‘d,’ decide on the powers, rights, duties and privileges that these massive global empires, which is what they are now, have in our democracy.”   

What was most striking about the UCLA gathering was how participants took the two rallying cries that have fueled nationwide protests, "Money is not speech" and "Corporations are not people," and analyzed and turned them into a deepening array of constitutional and other remedies that not only target democracy’s building blocks, but are backed up by public pressure. That grassroots resolve includes 300 municipalities and nine legislatures passing resolutions since 2010 calling for a constitutional amendment, followed this month by super-majorities of Montana and Colorado voters backing it.

The thread uniting these efforts is excising the “cancer” that Lessig refers to, which is the many ways that private money (from individuals or business entities) corrupts elections, lawmaking and political life. This is not a new story and is how the system corrupts decent people. That dynamic starts with how candidates must raise private money to run for public office. It affects who they talk to, what they say or avoid in campaigns, and how winners interact with their patrons afterward—especially, as seen in what laws they back or block. Americans know what’s going on, the Gallup poll found this July, when 87 percent replied that “reducing corruption in federal government” was their second top concern. Tellingly, both major party presidential candidates avoided democractic reforms, just as they did with climate change, cited by 52 percent of Americans.

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