THE BLOG

Forget Obama: Attack the Corporate Money

12/12/2010 11:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Whether you think Barack Obama's problem is spinelessness, naiveté, lack of principle, chronic centrism, Rupert Murdoch - or whatever, two things are painfully obvious. One, he will never fight for the progressive changes our country needs. Two, he will be the President for another two years, and most probably the Democratic Party's candidate in 2012.
Other than pulling the cover over our heads and sleeping late, the most talked about options among progressives, as Robert Kuttner recently described them, are: 1) "a ton of grass-roots organizing to put pressure on the administration to change course." 2) find a candidate to challenge Obama for the 2012 Democratic nomination
Grass roots organizing is essential to keep Obama from giving away the store. But if the goal is to change his course, forget it! There is already a ton of organizing out there on jobs, taxes, budget cuts, pollution, Afghanistan, health care, global warming, and the other issue arrows in our progressive quiver. But it did not move Obama much to the left when the Democrats controlled the Congress, and it is unlikely to do so over the next two years when he is facing an even more powerful and intractable Republican opposition.
As for finding a candidate who could snatch away the nomination and go on to beat an energized Republican party, it's highly unlikely. When push comes to shove among Democrats, the fear of a party split that elects a Republican successor driven by the crypto-fascist Right trumps disappointment with Obama. The White House knows that, and so do we.
Moreover, having been burned once, our voters -- especially the young -- may be understandably suspicious when the same well-meaning Democratic kingmakers who promoted Obama come back and say, "Sorry about that. But trust us, this time our candidate really is a liberal."
To break out of this trap, progressives need to create their own "transformational" politics independent of the White House. The task is not just to mobilize the left; it is to mobilize a majority of Americans around our central political argument - that Americans cannot halt the decline in their living standards without a strong democratic government that can overcome the power of corporate money. This is the heart of the matter. Obama's failure has taught us once again that unless we can re-establish this principle, our hope for a better America is toast.
The day Obama was inaugurated, the 30 year Reagan era of crony capitalism masquerading as the "free-market" was a discredited fraud. The country was ready for an updated New Deal. In two short years, that opportunity was blown by the combination of Obama's fecklessness, the rightwing propaganda machine and another demonstration that the corrupted political process prevents government from playing the role it needs to play in order to the country to solve its problems.
Here's the way it looks from the street: Democrats say we need big government to control big business. But when they get into power, their economic policy is set to benefit Wall Street by people who came from Wall Street and will go back to Wall Street. Democratic leaders proclaim their commitment to real health care reform while sucking up the campaign contributions and lobbying fees from big insurance companies. Their Pentagon, like the previous administration's, is infested with bloated contracts to incompetent multinational corporate mercenaries. So the hell with them; at least give me my money back!
Yes, the people support Social security and Medicare. But now a majority of Obama's big business loaded deficit commission wants to cut both. The Tea Party-er who shouts "Get the government's hands off Social Security" sounds appallingly stupid to progressive activists. But not necessarily to middle-aged workers with two part time jobs, no pension and little savings who are told by the bi-partisan establishment that they should wait for their first retirement check until they are 69.
Change we can believe in requires a government we can believe in. The dominant narrative of the Right is that you cannot believe in big government - and government, whether the town council or the Federal Government, is always too big, incompetent and corrupt.
The left's quite accurate response is that our government has been captured and corrupted by Big Money. Then why, asks the citizen, should we entrust it with more power? Good question. Given that there is little chance of enacting progressive legislation over the next two years at least, we need to make addressing it our priority.
We start with two great advantages. First, the people: the vast majority of Americans already believe that elected officials are corrupted by money. Second, the liberal elites: last January's Supreme Court ruling that opened up the floodgates for corporate campaign money should make it clear to leaders of trade unions, environmental groups, and other activist funding sources, as well as the dwindling cadre of rich liberal donors, that they now have a permanently losing hand in the campaign finance game.
True, campaign finance reform does not rank as high in voters' minds as jobs and taxes. But the question has come across abstractly as an issue of process rather than the central cause of our economic distress. Moreover the traditional answer - public financing -- has limited appeal. The argument that we should raise our taxes in order to pay for the campaigns of corrupted politicians is a hard sell, especially at a time when we don't have enough money to pay teachers and policemen and keep libraries open. It's been made even harder when mocked by Democrats like Obama, who, when they themselves can raise more money privately, abandon public financing altogether
The technical problem lies in the way the courts have interpreted the constitution's first amendment protections. By equating campaign contributions with free speech, they have prevented direct controls on election spending, thus restricting reforms to attempts to bribe politicians to use public money. And on the basis of the absurd fiction that corporations have the rights and protections of human citizens, the Supreme Court has now given them virtually unlimited power to buy elections. As many scholars and historians have shown, this is not what the authors of our constitution had in mind.
It is time therefore for a serious unified campaign to amend the constitution to establish once and for all the electorate's right to restrict campaign contributions and spending, and to end the fiction that corporations are people. Unlike the efforts of the radical right to amend the constitution over irrelevant issues like abortion, balanced budgets, prayer in the schools, etc. preventing money from contaminating democracy is truly a constitutional question.
Such a campaign would give progressives a powerful issue with which to unify our constituencies and broaden our base to the vast majority of people who are disgusted with both Big Business and Big Government. Because it involves organizing at both the state and Federal level, by its very nature it can create the national echo chamber for a serious debate.
A movement to drive the money-changers out of democracy's temple could re-capture the country's moral outrage and call the bluff of the phony corporate-backed "grass roots" leadership on the right. It could hone a common narrative among different issue groups, honestly addressing government's failures, without the Clintonesque bad-mouthing of civil service that undercuts our arguments. It could break us out of the false framework of the "public vs. private sector" and the thumb suck noodling on "what should be the proper role of government" that diverts us from acknowledging what the public already knows - that a plutocracy dominates both Washington and Wall Street.
In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, there was a flurry of interest in a constitutional amendment campaign. But it was eclipsed by the election and the various efforts to get Obama to change course. Now that it is clear that the next two years will put progressives on the defensive, a serious national movement to flush the big money out of politics could allow the left to go on the offence.
Yes, it will be hard. It will require agreement on the language, coordination, and of course - money. But ask yourself whether it will be easier to fundraise among ordinary citizens to attack the fundamental cause of our democracy's paralysis than to finance a quixotic campaign of yet another liberal savior anointed by elites - even our elites.
Chances of us actually passing a constitutional amendment in the next two years are admittedly no greater than finding a Democrat to beat Obama in the primaries. But at the end of two years we could be well on the way. More importantly, we could make some serious change in the public's consciousness that would put us much further down the road to the transformational politics that we desperately need.
One final benefit: because the President has no role in amending the constitution, we don't need Obama do to it.