In what feels to many to be a coincidence of divine significance, President Obama will be inaugurated to a second term of his historic presidency as America's first black chief executive just one day prior to Martin Luther King Day, the day Americans honor the great civil rights leader's legacy and dream of a more democratic and just nation. President Obama will even take the oath of office in part on Martin Luther King Jr.'s own Bible. Later that same evening, though, he will be toasted at extravagant galas across the Capitol marked by a very different, less divine blessing: gazillions of corporate dollars. Strangely enough, this will all occur on the third anniversary of the the Citizens United decision, the very Supreme Court judgment which opened the floodgates to the dramatic acceleration of the corruption of our democracy by Big Money.
This confluence of historic events provides an important opportunity for Americans to reflect on the relationship between King's legacy, the outrage of Citizens United and the broader corruption crisis it has come to represent, and the promise and peril of Obama's second term. Central to King's legacy is a dream that he lived and died for and left for us all to pursue. While President Obama's election and reelection are a testament to the tremendous progress we as a nation have made towards the realization of that dream, King's dream reached much further than merely having more black and brown faces in places of power and prestige. King dreamt of a radical realization of America's founding promise and dream of democracy, of liberty and justice for all -- regardless of race, class, gender or any other facet of one's identity -- and of an America that provides moral leadership for the world. Many of us had hoped Obama's presidency would mark a major milestone in the realization of this broader dream, and while some significant steps in the direction of its fulfillment cannot be denied, that hope has been for many nearly crushed and undoubtedly deeply frustrated. But why?
We can decry the deficiencies of Obama as a person, a leader, and a strategist, but the answer to this question lies in a deeper, systemic threat to MLK's dream. This threat -- the corruption of our democracy by Big Money -- was gravely intensified by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision decided on MLK Day 2010. Because of this corruption our elections, the day-to-day work and careers of elected leaders, and the very process of ostensibly democratic governance have become fundamentally dominated by and dependent upon high-dollar financial contributions that come almost entirely from less than 1 percent of the American people. As the cost of elections climbs to unprecedented levels, elected officials spend upwards of 70 percent of their time courting wealthy donors. This dependence on the very richest Americans to fund their reelection campaigns undermines the ability of elected officials to serve the interests of the majority of Americans -- the 99 percent -- those that King himself sought to lift up.
It is this subtle, hidden, systemic corruption that explains why a progressive president with a massive mandate and a supermajority of Democrats in both houses of Congress in his first two years of office was unable or unwilling to take on the worst of the 1 percent -- the funding class -- on issues ranging from real Wall Street reform, public health insurance, a sustainable energy and climate policy, labor law reform or a progressive tax policy to address our fiscal challenges. The experience of those who aim to carry out King's dream, of progressives over the last four years and -- indeed, many years before -- cannot but lead us to the conclusion that unless we not only overturn Citizens United but get Big Money out of politics for good we will continually find our hopes unmet and our dreams unrealized. Despite the confusion among some that Obama and other Democrats' victories mean Big Money lost in 2012, millions of Americans across the country now realize the extent of this problem and the urgency of meaningfully addressing it.
Civil rights and environmental justice leader Van Jones has said "getting big money out of politics is the closest thing to a silver bullet for the 99 percent." Indeed, this is the issue at the root of nearly all of America's problems that stand in the way of realizing MLK's dream, from the mass incarceration of people of color in the private prison industrial complex to the unwillingness of our nation's leaders to do anything to address or mitigate the devastating effects of global climate change. Racial justice and civil rights groups, unions, students, the elderly, LGBTQ groups, women, immigrants, environmentalists, and every other group of people striving for justice in America stands to win by getting Big Money out of our political system. The American public realizes this -- poll after poll finds that the vast majority of Americans believe there is too much corporate and super-rich money in our politics. The question remains, however: how do we strengthen this emerging popular awareness and hunger for change enough to win the reforms we need in the face of such entrenched resistance with Congress itself bought and sold and elections so deeply compromised?
Thankfully, another part of King's legacy offers us an answer to the question it poses.
Militant, mass nonviolent action remains key to our hope for the realization of King's dream. Martin Luther King showed the nation the power of making deep personal sacrifices to bring the extremity of a deeply unjust system into sharp, soul-shaking focus. He made crystal clear nonviolent direct action's unmatched capacity to touch the hearts of the American people and compel them to concerted action.
Just as movements before ours, from the abolitionists to the suffragettes to the civil rights movement, used nonviolent direct action to speak directly to the soul of the American people and create the political crises necessary to win the democratic changes of their day, so must the growing movement to reclaim and restore our democracy. Unfortunately this kind of visionary nonviolent leadership has faded in the years since King lived, but the Occupy movement and democratic and anti-austerity movements like it across the globe in recent years have reminded us of the power of mass nonviolent action to shift a nation's narrative and open long-closed doors to historic change. The time has come for Americans of conscience to commit to fulfilling our nation's founding promise and Martin Luther King's visionary dream by embracing the tactic of mass nonviolent civil disobedience, with its proven track record of making the impossible possible. This is the work that we have taken up in 99Rise, a new movement committed to using mass nonviolent direct action to free our democracy from the corrupting grip of Big Money once and for all. Others are also beginning to move in this direction. If we join together as many thousands to wield this weapon of nonviolent action, what King called "the sword that heals," we believe we can move our country much closer to fully realizing King's dream in Obama's second term.
Follow Devon Whitham on Twitter: www.twitter.com/devon_whitham