Building a Permanent Majority for Reform
This past cycle, progressive donors confronted incredible pressure, especially from Democrats, to support the re-election of the President and preserve a Senate majority. In many cases, despite moral hesitation, big-dollar donors ignored their better angels and supported the super PACs backing Obama for America (Priorities USA), Senate Democrats (Majority PAC), and House Democrats (House Majority PAC).
Some donors, like billionaire Warren Buffett, made a principled decision: Never donate to the super PACs created by the Citizens United decision. “I don’t want to see democracy go in that direction,” Buffett told the annual shareholders meeting of Berkshire Hathaway. “You have to take a stand some place.”
Buffett is absolutely right. To build a mandate for reform, both large- and small-dollar donors must turn their backs on the political entities spawned by Citizens United. Until they do, politicians will be enabled to pay lip service to reform publicly, yet quietly know that their financial backers will still support their participation in a corrupt system.
Some will say that Democrats must embrace corrupt money to stay competitive—but the argument is both self-serving for politicians and unmoored to reality. The problem with unlimited campaign money under Citizens United was never that it would necessarily advantage one party over another. The problem is that the money will systemically corrupt both governing parties that rely on the funding to win elections. And it will enrich an entire industry of consultants who defend the status quo.
A subset of donors will also continue to give to organizations dedicated to campaign-finance reform or increased disclosure, and such support certainly helps educate the public about the corrupt legislative and policy outcomes that will flow from a system of unlimited, often-undisclosed money. But the most important thing that high-dollar donors can do—the men and women closest to candidates, campaigns, and their lobbyists—is to give nothing, zero dollars, to any vehicle created by Citizens United or subsequent decisions. Washington will notice.
Citizens and Activists
Many activists have called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision—either by amending a portion of the Bill of Rights or by amending the Fourteenth Amendment, to deny constitutional personhood to corporations. There is real energy behind this movement: Citizens across the country have engaged local city councils, county boards, and state assemblies across the country, in both red states and blue. This energy has brought many people into the conversation about how money has corrupted our politics, and I’m heartened by the work these activists have done. The organization and drive behind these efforts, if channeled towards achievable goals, will remain a huge asset to the reform movement.
And there’s no doubt that a mandate for reform is growing. The question we face is whether we can unite to channel that energy into tangible action. To do so, we must first acknowledge that a constitutional amendment is unlikely to succeed, regardless of whether it targets the First or Fourteenth amendments.
Second, we must accept our role as citizens, and especially as progressives, in pressing Democrats to eschew corrupting money. We can do this by passing state-level reforms to stop the tide of corruption locally and proving the popularity of clean elections. Grassroots movements in both New York and California are on the cusp of real progress.
We can also do this by supporting candidates in the next elections who reject the support of groups created by Citizens United, as my friend Elizabeth Warren did in Massachusetts—pledging with her opponent Scott Brown to refuse any outside money.
We can do this by pressing our national elected officials to pass legislation that updates our system of public financing, creates real disclosure laws, and replaces the FEC with a true enforcement agency. And we can do this by turning our backs on the consultants and insiders who continue to game Citizens United for cash.
Unless Democrats embrace election reform as a central tenet of our platform, we will face another era reminiscent of soft money—when the dominance of corporate interests meant that no matter which party held power, the influence of Big Money always won.
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