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Annie Leonard Headshot

Why Democracy Only Works When People Are in Charge

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I don't get it. Poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans care about the same stuff I care about: secure jobs, good schools, healthy environment, clean energy and responsible government. I am not surprised that people want these things; they are pretty basic, red state-blue state, ingredients for a good life. But it's not happening.

We have a democracy -- as in majority rule -- and yet we can't get action on what the majority wants. What's up with that?

Last year I called a bunch of professional activists who work on climate issues in Washington, D.C. I was curious why the strongest legislation under consideration in Congress was still far weaker than what the science tells us is needed to curb global warming. The explanation was consistent: "It's the best we can get."

It's the best we can get? Who says? We're confusing political reality with physical reality.
There's no reason we can't have an economy that provides secure jobs and a healthy environment. There's no reason we can't have clean energy, good schools and all the other basics that would make life in America even better. This is America, after all. We are blessed with natural resources and a can-do spirit: we dream big, we aim high, we work together to overcome challenges.

So, why can't we handle such basics as keeping our air clean, teaching our kids math, and providing safe drinking water?

I went back and asked my DC friends, 'What's getting in the way of real solutions?' Again, the answer was consistent: the manipulation of our democracy by big business interests.
This should not come as a surprise. A recent poll by Hart Research found that 85 percent of Americans say corporations have too much influence on our democracy. Corporations hire armies of lobbyists and corporate representatives sit on so-called" independent" advisory committees that feed policy recommendations to government. And, as we saw in November, corporations pour huge amounts of money into campaigns to support or oppose candidates of their choice.

If it seems like it's getting worse, that's because it is. We can thank the Supreme Court for that.
In the 2010 case known as Citizens United v. F.E.C. - the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can spend as much money as they want from their corporate coffers to influence election outcomes. The corporations say it's free speech, but there's nothing free about it. If corporations - say Exxon, which made $30 billion last year - spend even a tiny percentage of their profits on influencing election outcomes, they can dwarf the contributions from real live citizens (that's you and me), skewing election results to favor their own interests. Which, let's face it, aren't always the same as the interests of workers, families and the environment.

Democracy: government of the people, by the people, for the people. It's the platform where we work out our differences, dreams and desires and figure out how to move forward as a society. We can't have a healthy functioning democracy with corporations given legal status equal to real people. It just doesn't work.

And we can't solve today's pressing environmental, economic and social problems without a healthy functioning democracy. Which is why we need to band together to do two things: get the corporations out of our democracy and get the people back in. (It's also why I decided to devote my latest film - launched today - to this very issue. Please watch The Story of Citizens United v FEC: Why Democracy Only Works when People are in Charge, and pass it on.)

One way to put the brakes on the excessive influence of corporations on our democracy is to undo the disastrous Citizens United decision. And the most lasting, meaningful way to do that is with a constitutional amendment. It's a tall order, but many organizations are launching campaigns for one. An amendment needs to confirm that the free speech protections in the First Amendment don't extend to for-profit corporations.

A constitutional amendment won't solve all the problems with corporate influence of our democracy, but it is a great place to start. If the Citizens United decision stands unchallenged, elections will be no more than auctions, with political offices available to the highest bidder, and unavailable to those who prioritize public - rather than corporate - interests.

Regardless of whether you're passionate about healthcare or the climate, product safety or workers' rights, this is your issue too. Corporate influence is in the way of our achieving a healthier, more secure, more fair society.

So let's defend our democracy by putting it to use right now: join a campaign to get corporations out of politics. Then we can truly have a democracy of the people, for the people and get to work making America the best it can be.

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