Two years ago, when farmers and plumbers and nurses and small business owners started showing up at Congressional town hall meetings to rant about bank bailouts and Obamacare, a lot of folks dismissed it. "Tea Party nuts," they said, "sore losers from the last election."
But those "nuts" were onto something.
This fall, as scraggly college kids and out-of-work teachers and tradesmen have massed to "Occupy Wall Street," and march in Philadelphia, Tampa, Hartford, Los Angeles and other cities, a lot of folks have written off their discontent as well. "It's just a bunch of socialists, anarchists, left-wing loonies," they say, "sore losers from the 2010 election."
But those "loonies" are onto something too.
Both groups sense that America is in danger. The government "of, by, and for the people," we learned about in junior high is something far different from the government we have today. Neither group knows quite what to do about it -- they often can't agree even among themselves -- but they know things can't go on like this.
The rest of us, the thoughtful majority struggling to pay our bills and hold onto our homes, know it too. We're uneasy with people on the fringes, Tea Party and left-wing alike, but we also see our government spending dangerously beyond its means and fighting wars that seem unending and increasingly pointless. Millions of us have lost our jobs or watched our neighbors lose theirs. Our pension funds are drying up and our employers no longer match our 401k donations. We read about bank and investment executives collecting million dollar bonuses drawn from government bailout funds. We see them funnel anonymous contributions into the campaigns of our politicians and buy influence through their new "Super PACs," and we know we can't just watch and read and wait much longer.
We need to get busy. Some of us are joining up with the Wall Street occupiers, as others joined up earlier with the Tea Party. Both movements need our thoughts and our energies. I think I know what all of us should be working on.
Left, right and center, Republican, independent, and Democrat, pretty much everyone agrees that our system has been corrupted. Big money, from banks and insurance companies, the medical lobby, defense contractors, the trial lawyers, the big unions and a boatload of other special interests, is in control.
The power of big money is why our tax laws allow some of our largest corporations and richest citizens to pay less than their fair share of our national expenses. It's why our military invests in high-tech weapons that are of little use to our troops in the Afghan mountains and Iraqi deserts. It's why the financial "wizards" who've nearly run our economy aground can get away with collecting fat bonuses drawn from government bailout funds. It's why we grow ever more dependent on energy purchased overseas from people who don't like us. It's why we can't get our act together to tackle the challenge of climate change. It's why Congress never seems able to do much of anything.
Since I served in Congress in the 1970s and '80s, I've been convinced that taming the influence of big money in our political system is critical to moving our country forward. But instead of taming, our Supreme Court and our political leaders are turning big money loose. Last year's Citizens United decision has given big corporations and big unions carte blanche to pour millions -- and before long billions -- of dollars into our elections. And our tax laws allow those donations to be made anonymously, so voters have no way of knowing exactly who is trying to influence their votes, no way of evaluating what might be behind the messages that jam our airwaves and flood our mailboxes.
At Common Cause, we know of several ways to attack this problem. We want to build a campaign finance system that allows candidates to run competitive campaigns on the power of small donors, and we want strong disclosure laws. Fixing our broken politics should be the first priority of the Wall Street occupiers, the Tea Party and the thoughtful majority. We are willing to consider any ideas, willing to work with anyone, regardless of party or philosophy, who will join us in taking on this challenge.