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Jeffrey Abelson Headshot

Seeking Civic Virtue in "Citizens United"

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No, this is not a contrarian defense of last week's Supreme Court surprise that's caused such a seismic reaction. But neither is it another broadside -- as plenty of experts have already spoken loudly and more eloquently than I could from a legal or constitutional perspective. And because what's done is done. There is no substantive end run around SCOTUS, and for the sake of democratic stability, that's a good thing.

What does interest me in this spectacle is the potential for an unintended consequence that I hope will rise from the ashes.

The more alarmist critiques have suggested the end of democracy as we know it. If that's true, I say good riddance, because democracy as we know it is precisely what's brought us to this present moment of gridlock and polarization and corruption -- and the mountain of deadly serious national problems that just sit and fester year after year, decade after decade. All presided over by governments of both right and left.

So where's the potential good in all this? First we need to be honest about what's driving the fear. The real cause. So let's break it down.

The ubiquitously expressed concern is that corporations, with their deep pockets, will flood campaigns with even more money than usual, and more easily buy their own politicians. Now, aside from the implicit accusation that every politician is a whore and nothing but a whore -- a belief I do not share, as much as it seems to be true sometimes -- let's peel back a few layers.

Why will corporations spend this money? To buy expensive 30-second TV spots, of course.

Why do that? Because they work.

Why do they work? Because citizens who are ill-informed and tuned out are thoroughly unable to inoculate themselves against slick propaganda.

And that brings us to the nub of the matter -- to terrain where pols and pundits fear to tread.

Consider the endless heavily-researched studies which reveal how shockingly little most Americans know about how government works -- let alone the big issues of the day. And how disconnected even informed citizens are from the political process, convinced they can't affect public policy other than by casting an occasional vote, so why even bother trying to do more.

This dual-edged civic flaw is the true root cause of our dysfunctional democracy. Not who is funding political commercials or how much they're spending. Widespread civic tuneout lies at the heart of government's chronic inability to embrace and enact comprehensive and sustainable solutions to the country's most vexing problems -- regardless of who is president, or which party controls Congress. It's just too easy to play to our fears and pull wool over our averted eyes.

And change ain't never gonna come as long as we have a citizenry in which six out of ten cannot name the three branches of government -- when most of us don't know which party controls Congress at any given time -- when only a bare majority can name even one basic purpose of the Constitution. And when 70-80% of the public knows even less about actual issues and policies that affect the quality of their own lives. And yours, and mine.

And so yes, they will be influenced by corporate ads, just like they are by any clever political ads that are repeated often enough.

Would restricting corporations from spending more money help improve America's alarmingly low levels of civic and political literacy? Not one bit. Not unless it's part and parcel of a massive civic renaissance that no one is currently talking about in public.

It's a pretty simple equation really. In a self-governing society, if we truly want wise and effective government, then we truly need wise and effective citizens. Without a strong public voice reflecting true wisdom of a true crowd, the forces in society who aren't shy about wielding power will fill the vacuum created by passive citizens.

It was always thus. It shall always be.

Yet no one ever tries to encourage us, The People, to reverse this self-inflicted curse. Instead, we bare our teeth in righteous anger, while politicians trip over themselves to prove their populist street cred, and offer flim flam and palliatives to quell the beast. Until the next wave of emotion rides in on the next news cycle. Always pressing emotional hot buttons. Never provoking serious thought.

Never do any of our fearless leaders, or members of the media elite, try to inspire us to do more to inoculate ourselves. One of the most glaring failures of the "leadership" class is their abject refusal to promote a voter vaccine at least as aggressively as they promote flu vaccines.

But there it is. And there it will stay, as long as they perceive the citizenry to be the passive pawns we are, easy to manipulate, and impossible to communicate with on a serious level. Even Obama, with all his transformative potential, won't step up to this critical task of sparking a new form of citizen-driven politics.

So others must.

But not in a partisan way. If you're a true blue or red ideologue, and you believe in the great game of ping pong power politics that has dominated this nation for far too long, and been driving it to its current sorry state, then I understand your concerns and empathize. But consider the depth of our national problems which, to be effective and sustainable, will require solutions that 70-80% of Congress and the public can support -- then listen to the ticking clock. There are times to fight, and there are times to drop the sword and dance together. Progress of the magnitude needed cannot come without transpartisan collaboration. At least on this issue. Pols and pundits won't take the lead, and citizens won't magically self-motivate. This kind of mega-change can only come about if activists of all stripes help inspire the general public to abolish their apathy or cynicism and become well informed active citizens.

So what's the most productive response? Trying to mitigate the Supreme Court decision? That's a losing battle, and even if won, wouldn't solve anything.

What would is if all those who wielded influence in the culture were to look their piece of America squarely in the eye, and speak the unvarnished, empirical, irrefutable truth. We need to take our jobs as citizens much more seriously. We've been slacking off for far too long now, and it's killing us. As such, we have to take the time from our busy lives to learn a whole lot more about the issues, and the policies proposed to address them. And once informed, we -- the self-governors -- need to actually participate in some, you know, governance.

It's not enough just to vote every couple years, and then tune out till it's time to complain and throw the bums out again. Serious citizens need to bone up on issues that matter to them, and find ways to make our well-reasoned voices heard by policy makers in an effective way. Without screaming.

Then, and only then, can we take full advantage of the miracle tool known as the internet -- which is waiting to hook us all up, and enable -- for the first time in history -- the authentically wise Voice of the American People to be relentlessly piped into our representatives ears. And for any politicians too foolish or arrogant to listen, they will be ushered out of their offices to make room for those who will.

It's so tiresome to listen to defenders of the status quo make excuses for why citizens aren't more plugged in. And that, after all, this is a representative democracy where leaders are chosen to do all that learning and thinking stuff for us. Well, how's that been working out?

Everyone's busy, but life's about setting priorities.

So it's my hope that somehow Citizens United vs. FEC might come to serve not as an additional spigot for spin, but as an urgently needed wake-up call for a cross-partisan, cross-generational effort to transform ourselves from citizen slackers to citizen superheros -- ready, willing, and able to finally help ourselves save the day.

It's an idealistic hope, to be sure. But when you drill down deep to confront root causes, it's plain to see that there really is no alternative.

Good citizens and real patriots are well informed and actively engaged in democracy. If we don't soon get with that program, prepare for the deluge. And Citizens United will be just a drop in the bucket.