Representative Democracy, Heal Thyself

Is an antidote to Citizens United within our reach?

Bhaskar Sunkara

Workers at the Recology recycling facility in San Francisco, a collaboration between community groups, unions and the city. (Courtesy of Teamster Waste & Recycling Division)

The demand to get money out of politics” was a rallying cry for the Occupy movement, and it’s one that, thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, resonates deeply with much of the public. Citizens United opened the door for unlimited corporate spending in elections and is largely responsible for the Wild West of campaign finance in which we find ourselves this election season. But is money in politics” the problem, or is it shorthand for record levels of inequality that will inevitably distort our political process?

In These Times spoke to Sarah Leonard of Dissent magazine, Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer, and Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy about progressive electoral strategies and what it would take to build a popular movement around something as wonky as campaign finance reform.

How is Citizens United impacting this year’s elections. And exactly how different is this from what we’ve seen in previous years?

Lisa: There’s no doubt that before Citizens United there were problems with things like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, where an outside group runs a character assassination campaign that benefits a particular candidate, and that candidate can distance himself or herself from those dirty politics and mudslinging. But now we have that on steroids. This is going to not only be the most expensive election in U.S. history, it will be the most expensive election in world history.

Doug: Look, money has been a big force in American politics for more than a century. This emphasis on the role of money in politics is, I think, a sideshow, because rich people can spend money as individuals; they don’t need to spend it as corporations. Only political agitation and mobilization can counter the effect of money.

This leads to a bigger question. We live in a class society with enormous disparities in power between rich and poor. So wouldn’t this manifest itself in the political arena no matter what restrictions are put on money in politics”?

Sarah: Yes, we need to broaden our sense of what money in politics means to include the symptoms of class you’re hinting at. Money in politics certainly means the Koch brothers giving millions of dollars to candidates directly or indirectly. But it’s also a manifestation of money in politics when people who work in Washington hang out on yachts together in their free time. Whether or not money changes hands, the fact that Barack Obama is brunching with JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon is certainly an instance of money in politics.

The most far-reaching idea that has been proposed is a constitutional amendment eliminating corporate personhood. How realistic is this?

Sarah: Amendment campaigns are brutal, but there’s some positive historical precedent. There’s the 16th Amendment that established an income tax, which came out of an anti-rich and anti-monopoly fervor in the late-19th century.

Lisa: A number of different amendments have been prepared. There’s a constellation of groups who believe in the necessity of overruling not only Citizens United but the Buckley v. Valeo decision in the 70s that laid the foundation for what the Court ultimately did two years ago.

One of the proposals to this end is devoted to eliminating corporate personhood. Another focuses on restoring congressional power to regulating this area.

Corporate personhood, in a sense, was a progressive economic development that created stability and protected businesses from shocks. Do we really want to go back?

Doug: The question of corporate personhood concerns how we organize economic activity. I’m not sure what people who oppose corporate personhood want to put in its place. Corporations have to have some sort of legal existence above the level of partnership or sole proprietorship, and in some legal sense they will have to be considered persons. What those persons can do is another question. Right now the corporate person has all the rights and none of the responsibilities of a normal person. It’d be nice if they could go to jail or be executed.

The fundamental issue is the falseequivalence of money and speech. I’m not sure we can address that through judicial means; it’s going to take legislation. The courts are almost always going to be institutions of reaction in American society.

Polls show that Citizens United is unpopular, but these issues aren’t gaining traction. How do you mobilize people around this issue?

Sarah: A campaign like this does not address the problems that most Americans are conscious of in their daily lives. It could take a long time, but passing an amendment not only gives long-running campaigns something to focus on, it’s extremely relatable to Americans in general. The constitutional amendment is a very concrete thing that Americans learned in junior high school. There is something to be said for using that as an organizing principle for talking about money as speech and corporate control of elections. 

Lisa: The idea that the premise just hasn’t caught on yet is simply belied by the facts. There have been resolutions against Citizens United passed in cities almost on a weekly basis for the last two years. The momentum is, in fact, building.

And while campaign finance may not relate directly to whether you can pay the bills, I think more and more people are connecting the dots between how money is influencing our elections and our politicians and how this is thwarting the reform of healthcare and the reform of Wall Street.

Speaking of thwarting reform, the failed effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was seen as a prelude to what progressive challengers will face in the general elections. Progressives are rattled, but how much does Walker’s enormous spending advantage explain his victory?

Doug: In Wisconsin, even though money was important, it’s just as important to remember that unions are not popular. Just focusing on the money distracts from the shortcomings of the unions and their strategy. Channeling a popular mobilization into a doomed electoral campaign was a serious mistake. We can’t just blame Citizens United for failures of organization and a lack of appeal.

Lisa: Blaming union strategy is an overstatement. What we saw in Wisconsin was a number of groups that were not disclosing their donors, were not filing as PACs, [that] emerged in the weeks before the election out of nowhere. Through a loophole, Walker was able to raise unlimited funds. It was only in the aftermath of enormous outside interest spending that Walker was able to get and maintain a lead.

Unions and non-profits also have the ability to spend in new ways following Citizens United. Should progressive forces be rethinking how they organize during elections in addition to pushing for campaign finance reform?

Sarah: There are obviously enormous disparities in resources between unions and corporations, but new avenues have opened up for unions. They can organize on the ground in new ways. And the unions — despite efforts like the AFL-CIO’s Working America, which deals with non-unionized workers — are not really utilizing this freedom.

Doug: The Wall Street Journal reported recently that unions have spent over $4 billion on political activities in the last five or six years. What do they have to show for it?

Unions should head toward trying to organize non-union members around very specific political issues, things like single-payer [healthcare]. They have money. They have the institutional resources. They have the people. They could do it, but instead they just write checks to Democrats, who end up ignoring or betraying them once elected.

What you’re describing isn’t just a problem with the rules being rigged; it’s also a crisis of organization on the Left. How do we fix the specific problem of money in politics without losing sight of the impact that inequality has on our democracy?

Sarah: There’s an elite revolving door between government and finance and other key sectors of the economy. As long as there are people in a society with massively more money than others in that society, those people are going to have a disproportionate control over politics. That is true. But that doesn’t change that we still need to fight money in politics, as it is widely understood.

We do need to strengthen methods of union organizing and other Left organizations. But when we constantly lose elections because people are giving millions of dollars to Republicans, that makes it much harder. And if unions get thwacked over and over again because there are millions of Koch dollars coming in, that makes the on-the-ground organizing that we need to do so much harder.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @sunraysunray.
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