Toppling the Money Empire

Election Day 2012 looks like it is going to be Groundhog Day 2012. Another election dominated by money. Another series of promises made on the campaign trail, broken as soon as donors and lobbyists come calling when legislatures convene.

For the public and most lawmakers, the problem is clear. Our present system has long rewarded politicians who rely on deep-pocketed supporters to provide massive amounts of cash to pay for increasingly costly campaigns. A string of recent Supreme Court decisions has exacerbated the problem, allowing corporations nearly free rein to attack candidates who present a threat to their bottom line, pushing officeholders to seek even more money. This adds to the pervasive sentiment that our elected officials’ primary function is to raise money. Large numbers of voters have disengaged from a system in which they don’t seem to matter. With no end in sight and increasing frustration driven by a stagnant economy, American democracy is in peril.

The good news is that we know how to solve what appears to be an insurmountable problem: Pass legislation that pushes candidates to rely on the 99 percent for their campaign dollars instead of on the moneyed elite. This principle has been put into practice in places like Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, and North Carolina, where candidates who give up big donations run entirely on a combination of small contributions and public funds. Such campaigns require lawmakers to depend on a broad base of constituents for funding and align election financing with the core democratic values of equality, accountability, and representation. To protect this relationship from a runaway Supreme Court, a constitutional amendment that would authorize Congress to regulate outside political expenditures is also likely required.

The harder problem is one of organizing and political will. How do we convince folks that a small donor–based system or a constitutional amendment is possible? How do we incentivize the very politicians who prosper from the current system to change it? Putting democracy and government back in the hands of its citizens will require a broad political movement. To be successful, this movement will focus on the connection between the economic hardship and insecurity faced by Americans and the exchange of campaign money for legislative favors. It will shine a harsh and unforgiving light on normative behavior in Washington, D.C., and state capitols, removing dirty elected officials from office. And it will be carried forward by the issue and constituency groups that directly represent the concerns of the 99 percent. Millions of Americans are already expressing outrage that economic inequity flows from political inequity. We now need to channel this anger to achieve the full potential that this moment offers.

There is evidence that we’ve reached a tipping point. Citizens’ rumblings began shortly after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January 2010; polling showed that Americans on both ends of the political spectrum reviled the ruling. In July 2010, the giant retailer Target paid a price in customer loyalty when it was revealed that the company had contributed $150,000 to a business group that backed an anti-gay gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota. In Washington, D.C., last spring, at the height of the battle in Wisconsin over collective bargaining, more than 1,000 people engulfed the offices of a lobbying firm in protest of a fund-raiser being held for that state’s Republican lawmakers. In November, Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, author of his state’s notorious anti-immigrant bill, lost his recall election when key voters turned against him due to his insider pay-to-play dealings.

The awareness of how money poisons our politics is finding its way into issue—specific campaigns as well. Leading national community-organizing networks such as National People’s Action, Alliance for a Just Society, the Center for Community Change, and the PICO National Network have begun educating their constituencies on the connection between the injustice in economically hard-hit neighborhoods and campaign-finance corruption.

Perhaps most significant is the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupiers floated numerous demands for consideration, and many of them focused on taking money out of politics. Some urged that public financing replace private donations. As a West Virginia occupier protesting in Washington, D.C., said, “We don’t have a government that represents us. That is the message.”

Taken separately, each of these examples represents a small blow against money’s empire and could be seen as an anomaly. Together, though, they represent a new force capable of making change. The public, across almost all ideological lines, craves a political system responsive to its own needs rather than accountable to an elite few. We may be closer to a victory than one might think. Most lawmakers dread the expanding hours of “call time” they spend canvassing millionaires for money. There are already nearly 200 backers of the small-donor–based Fair Elections bill in Congress and a bevy of new proposals for a constitutional amendment that would stem the flow of corporate campaign money. The upcoming elections will likely bring increased attention to big-money corruption, in key races, creating more pressure for a solution. Overweight at the top and unsupported below, this system will topple with a hard push. Americans have begun to stand up and battle for what our country has promised for nearly 250 years: a government of, for, and by the people. That fight, waged by the many against the money, is one we have no choice but to win.

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