05/02/2013 04:07 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2013

It Takes a Democracy Movement

We're barely four months into the term and the 113th Congress has already shown us why, year after year, the institution's public approval ratings are lower than the temperature on a cold day in Michigan. Corporate tax loopholes have been extended, special interests have been rewarded, lobbyists with deep pockets have won again and again, and the American people are left holding the bag.

"It's not that the system is broken," says the conservative populist Governor Buddy Roemer, "it's that it's bought." The question that logically follows is what we, the American people, can do about it. How can we remove the corroding influence of money in politics?

In my work with members of the Young Elected Officials Network, a network of progressive officials elected before the age of 35, that question comes up consistently. It's not an abstract concern -- the flood of money in politics presents a daily challenge to anyone trying to enact meaningful public policy.

"This is about the integrity of our democracy, which makes it the defining issue for every policy we care about. It all comes down to this," St. Paul City Councilmember Melvin Carter said to me recently. Carter and other members of the YEO network know this fact better than most because they're attempting to pass legislation to benefit their constituents in a profoundly distorted political environment. In order to become law, nearly every reform has to survive an onslaught of moneyed attacks. Every industry with a stake in the outcome has the chance to pour money into Super PACs, "dark money" groups, or opponents' campaign coffers. Even when that doesn't happen, the mere threat of a scorched earth attack over a proposal is often enough to grind progress to a halt.

But that's only half the problem. Thanks to Citizens United and related cases, corporations and special interests have unprecedented power to choose who gets elected in the first place. In Connecticut, where State Representative Matt Lesser resides, Citizens United-empowered outside groups have targeted reformers in primaries and general races. "In several cases, they likely changed the outcome of races," he wrote to me in an email last week. Although he remains a strong advocate of Connecticut's clean elections law, Lesser rued, "outside money has started to bring down public financing."

In the short term, there are reforms we should fight for to mitigate the absurdities of the status quo. On the state and federal level, we can and should demand that lawmakers pass disclosure laws, regulate the sources and sizes of direct contributions, strengthen rules on coordination between candidate campaigns and outside spenders, enact corporate accountability measures, improve reporting agencies, and create robust public financing systems for elections.

But those acts can only go so far. If we want to live out the true intent of our democracy, the entire paradigm must be shifted by amending the Constitution to place our elections in the hands of the people, not deep pocketed special interests. Short of such an amendment, the Supreme Court's rulings will continue to undermine efforts to enact meaningful election reform. Since 1976, the Court has been stripping Congress and the states of the constitutional right to issue content-neutral election regulations. Now, due to the landmark Citizens United case and related cases, Congress and the states are constitutionally incapable of stopping limitless for-profit and special interest spending in elections, or instituting public financing innovations like 'matching funds' that level the electoral playing field.

Luckily, short-term fixes and long-term transformation aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, winning "small" victories is the best way to grow a movement broad enough and powerful enough to eventually effect deep reform. And that's exactly what we need: a nationwide movement to get the money out and voters in.

What can the average person do to get the money out? They can ask their representatives, at all levels of government, where they stand on the issue. Do they support the amendment strategy, citizen-funded elections, disclosure laws and other commonsense reforms? If the answer is yes, then that support should be written about, propagated, and mobilized around. If the answer is no, we should do the same to expose their opposition.

That's how movements are made. We need to take back our democracy, and the only way to do that is to overhaul the system from the bottom up.


To date, over 500 cities and towns, 13 states, 137 members of Congress, and President Obama have gone on record in support of amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United and related cases.