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Citizens United v. United Citizens: Building a Movement to Drive Money Out of Politics

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Friday, January 21st, marks the one-year anniversary of Citizens United, a Supreme Court case that dramatically accelerates the corruptive force of money in U.S. politics.

When money flows in our economy, it's a fuel that helps businesses flourish and people make a living. When money flows in our political system, however, it's a cancer that infects politicians and through them our institutions of democracy. With Citizens United, the cancer is now metastasizing, and as the corruption accelerates, it generates a downward political spiral that threatens the very future of our country.

While this problem is shared by all Americans, the progressive community is frequently at the frontline fighting money's influence in public policy. As a collection of separate issues, it has struggled for relevance in broader American society, but as leaders in the fight to drive money out of politics, progressives have an opportunity to redefine themselves as restorers of American democracy.

Increasing Money's Influence in Elections

Last year's landmark Citizens United Supreme Court case struck down previous limitations on "outside spending" -- the money channeled through organizations outside an official campaign, but which nonetheless run ads, make phone calls and do lots of other things to support a campaign. With Citizens United, the Supreme Court not only made it easier to fund this kind of electioneering, but also made it much harder for citizens to know who's actually behind it.

According to recent analysis done by New York Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, over one-third of all outside ad spending in the 2010 elections came from secret sources, made possible by Citizens United. The total funding it unleashed represented $1 for every $5 dollars spent by candidates, which translated to over $85 million in U.S. Senate races alone.

All this spending has impact; take for example, the small network of hedge fund executives who pumped a last-minute $10 million into key races last year. One of the races they helped win was a seat for the incoming chair of the House Financial Services subcommittee on capital markets - the legislative committee responsible for any future reforms of Wall Street.

This is remarkable impact, especially considering that the ruling had only been in effect for nine months prior to the election. Imagine what the impact will look like in 2012, once mega-contributors have digested what they learned in 2010 and have more time to fully prepare. I'll give you a hint; it's going to get bigger - much bigger.

Public Frustration is Rising

Stopping this runaway train won't be easy, and progressives couldn't do it alone even if they tried. Their best bet lies in building constructive outlets for the growing frustration and despair that plagues America today.

The American people aren't happy about the state of their government. A recent Pew Research Center survey sees a "perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government -- a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials." Gallup similarly confirms that trust in government, and our legislature in particular, is at a record low. Adding fuel to the flame is the sense among many Americans that government economic policies increasingly benefit big business at the expense of the American people.

People aren't just frustrated - they're angry. These same polls reflect a sharp uptick in anger towards the government, something the Tea Party is using very effectively to promote its ideas and candidates.

The Pew survey also found that over 80% of Americans on the left, right and center view the influence of "special interest money" as a major problem. Recent polls from Washington Post/ABC News, New York Times/CBS News and Angus Reid all show that Americans are concerned about the Citizens United decision - at least in theory; the Angus Reid survey also showed that two thirds of respondents had either not followed the issue closely or not followed it at all - and that gets us to one of the most difficult aspects of getting money out of politics.

Campaign finance reform isn't something most people know or care that much about. More frustratingly, clean politics doesn't always translate into victories on election day. Despite the above mentioned concerns over Citizens United, a recent Bloomberg poll shows that less than half of Americans would be less likely to vote for a candidate who accepted the kind of funding made possible by the new ruling.

Strengthening this connection between people's stated desires for healthy democracy and their actual voting behavior is exactly where progressives need to now focus.

Investing in Democracy

Campaign finance reform is not just some issue that "civil society" groups work on. Getting money out of politics is not just an issue; democracy is not just an issue. If you're working on social change, democracy is the medium in which you work. It is the air you breath, the ground on which you stand. You cannot outsource it to 'those other guys' who work that issue. Those other guys are you.

Here's the problem: everyone's too busy and money's too tight. But if you're on the board or staff of a social change organization, ask yourself honestly how much change you expect on your issue between now and 2012. With the shift in Congress and recession-induced budget squeezes making progress difficult at the federal, state and local levels, might a portion of your resources be better allocated right now to changing the rules of the game?

I'm not recommending organizations outright change their focus. There are legal and practical considerations to diverting nonprofit resources away from their charitable purpose, but what about investing 10% of resources into driving money out of politics? Here are a few ideas for what that might look like:

Awareness Building:

While most board and staff of progressive organizations are acutely aware of the current challenges to our democracy, many constituents are not. What if progressive organizations regularly devoted just 10% of their editorial space on websites, newsletters and other communications to helping constituents understand all the ways that money currently infects our political system and makes social change harder to achieve?

Helping to build this awareness doesn't have to be hard. Common Cause, The Brennan Center, Public Citizen and other organizations have excellent resources you can summarize or simply link to in your communications. As an expert on your issue, your value is helping your constituents see the link between a healthy democracy and a cause they care about.

Ten percent is not a lot individually, but collectively it could really add up. Just 2% of the 1.5 million nonprofits in this country would translate into 30,000 organizations lending their voices. When that many organizations begin talking about this problem on a regular basis across the country, it will shift awareness. The retweets and reposts of constituents will spread it even further.

Campaigning

Beyond awareness building is the harder challenge of picking a strategy that actually results in real change.

The Fair Elections Now Act seems like a good place to start. It's designed to help federal candidates more easily forego organized money as a route to office. That stops the flow of candidates beholden to big money - the first step in halting the cancer's spread. The act has an accompanying "Voters First Pledge" that commits candidates to supporting fair elections after they're elected. I'm not saying the act is likely to pass in advance of November 2012, but a campaign with broad progressive support could help focus voter frustration on big money in the run up to the election.

A vote on the Fair Elections Now Act would also put incumbents on record and the Voters First Pledge would do the same for challengers. With some work, that record could be developed into a more comprehensive "democracy scorecard," similar to the League of Conservation Voters' Environmental Scorecard. Combining Open Secrets campaign contribution data with candidates' stated positions and actual voting record on specific legislation, could create a comprehensive scorecard for determining whether a politician is part of the cancer or part of the cure.

The key, of course, is translating that scorecard into actual votes, and the League of Conservation Voters does this through a PAC dedicated to electing candidates who score high on their environmental scorecard. The "democracy scorecard" would work the same way, but take things up a notch by establishing an "independent expenditure-only committee" or "Super PAC." This new entity is the offspring of Citizens United, and it could be used in this case to channel outside spending to democracy-friendly candidates, without directly contributing to their campaigns and jeopardizing their public funding status.

Yes, using a Super PAC to drive money out of politics is as hypocritical as using a group named "Citizens United" to drive money into politics. Now is not the time to play nice. Now is the time to push back, and Citizens United changed the available toolset. Still, there are ways to use a democracy Super PAC based on the principles for which it stands. For example, it could be used only to even the odds for candidates with publicly funded campaigns, and only in those cases when their opponent's campaign is not publicly funded.

Individual progressive organizations could plug into the above work through direct and grassroots lobbying to support The Fair Elections Now Act. Their campaigning will help raise awareness and help frame the 2012 elections. While these organizations can't directly participate in electoral campaigns themselves, they can be supportive of staff who want to take time off to work on the campaigns of clean candidates. Having a well-funded democracy Super PAC up and running in advance of the 2012 elections may be a lot to ask for, but even one that simply published the scorecard and provided a coordinating focus for campaign volunteers would be an important step.

With all that said, Citizens United completely changes our understanding of how elections work by removing campaign contribution caps on corporations and wealthy individuals. In 2012, money will flow at volumes never before seen. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for something like a "democracy Super PAC" to compete with this coming deluge, which is why tactics like this should never be confused with a long-term progressive strategy.

From Campaign to Movement

Community organizer, Saul Alinsky once famously noted that the only way to beat organized money is with organized people.

When nonprofit organizations compete with organized money by trying to organize money, it's like fighting fire with fire when you're holding a BIC lighter and your opponent has a flamethrower. The economics just don't work. Once the nonprofit achieves its policy objectives, its funders inevitably shift money to other pressing problems. But when big-monied interests achieve their policy wins, that's when their money starts to really flow - in the form of regulatory loopholes, tax cuts and subsidies. That increased cash helps fund more lobbying and electioneering to ensure the changes stick and flourish over time.

If you're a nonprofit social change organization, the only way you win is by changing the game; you stop fighting organized money by organizing money, and start fighting it by organizing people.

Dissatisfaction with our political system runs much broader than the progressive community, and it would be a huge mistake to frame the current threat to American democracy as a progressive issue. Progressives have an opportunity to lead right now, but not by leading people with this or that particular progressive issue.

What's called for today is a different type of leadership, one that takes a chapter from Saul Alinsky and the great tradition of community organizing in this country. The best community organizers lead by working with community members to build their own ability to solve problems. Fixing democracy and evening people's odds against organized money is what that looks like today, and this is the leadership opportunity now before Progressives.

It will not be easy. It will require shifting some resources away from specific issues. There is no chain of command in the progressive community, so participation is voluntary and decentralized and needs to be designed to take advantage of that. Organizational leaders will need to be able to look beyond traditional institutional concerns, something we know is possible when they're truly inspired -- and fighting to restore democracy provides that kind of inspiration. It can be a unifying force, powerful enough to transform a progressive community into a progressive movement. "E pluribus unum" -- "out of many, one" -- these words symbolized a coming together of autonomous interests in the name of democracy and in shared opposition to an earlier form of tyranny. They are no less symbolic a reminder today for progressives and the broader community they serve.

Restoring democracy will benefit progressive issues, but it's important to remember that not all democracy is progressive. You may or may not agree with Tea Party values or issues, but if you doubt their passion for democracy, you misunderstand that movement. They have done a far better job than progressives so far in tapping the American people's heartbreak and frustration over what is happening in this country. Progressives can not allow the rage of the Tea Party to be this country's answer to our current problems.

This opportunity, this shift, now required of progressives is not some far off idea. The time for change is now. The massive infusion of Citizens United funding now swelling for the 2012 election makes nothing more urgent. The fragility of democracy, and our obligation to future generations, make nothing more important.