What significance should be attached to Hillary Clinton's recent statement that we should "fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all, even if it takes a constitutional amendment?" It is easy enough to dismiss her solution by pointing to its limitations. First, it addresses only those expenditures that are formally independent of campaigns, and even there she objects only to "dark money" -- those expenditures whose sources are not revealed. She does not even mention that the millions in contributions that go directly to campaigns are provided by a tiny elite. Further, Clinton's statement is totally devoid of specifics concerning the constitutional amendment that she implies might be required. Indeed the question that has to be asked is why she even mentions a constitutional amendment at all. If what she seeks is disclosure of "dark money," all that is needed is for the Congress to pass such a law and for the President sign it.
But while it is true that Clinton's statement is weak and evasive, its significance lies not in its flaws but in the fact that she issued it at all. After all, Clinton is a cautious politician who herself is deeply embedded in the world of the moneyed elite. Her candidacy will not lack funding. That she has talked about money in elections as a source of dysfunction in the political system is the result of a change in the country's political dialogue. A new militancy has been the reply by middle and low income people to the unbridled license that the Supreme Court, in its recent decisions, has accorded to the super-rich.
This push-back has occurred on numerous fronts. Occupy Wall Street was its harbinger. Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio represent one dimension of it. The militant workers at fast-food chains, another. Broad-based efforts to raise the minimum wage are part of the same pattern. The same is true of the new-found academic interest in income inequality. And also the increased numbers of activists participating in organizations such as Democracy Matters and Every Voice, as well as those marching in the New Hampshire Rebellion against political corruption. It is as if a tipping point has been reached.
That Clinton has responded to these efforts is testimony to her political sensitivity. She knows that she will need an energized political base to be elected. Her critique of money in politics represents her effort to get out ahead of the activists, and mobilize them in support of her candidacy. She faces only token opposition within the Democratic Party and seeks to keep it that way.
It is a triumph that Clinton moved as she did. But the degree to which she will continue to advance an egalitarian agenda and focus on money in politics will depend upon the pressure she feels from activists. It will be much more important that they grow in number and become a social movement than risk being co-opted by endorsing Clinton. At the moment, all politicians operate in a political funding system that acts as a constant drag away from equality. Only a militant movement can induce at least some office-seekers to forsake their wealthy patrons and identify with those seeking to reduce the political power of big donors.
The diversity of activism today represents a potential source of strength. These efforts are occurring both in the formal political realm (electing officials), at the workplace (McDonald's), and in communities and campuses (grassroots organizing).Together they speak to the fact that there is really a chance that a transformative social movement could emerge. For it do so however, each of these efforts will have to grow, and just as importantly, linkages among them will have to be forged.
The problem is that the very diversity of the efforts that are currently underway means that those linkages are not easily achieved. What is required is an organizational structure that is similar to the environmental movement's success in filling the streets of Manhattan last fall. To be part of that march, no one was asked to give up their agenda, their strategy, or their tactics. What they did have to agree upon was the need to save the earth from catastrophe, and as such they were all part of the same effort.
Something similar will be required if the struggle against plutocracy is to exercise maximum leverage over political figures. People who picket fast food outlets can find common ground with campaign finance reformers when the latter seek to achieve a responsive government. And all of the activists can and should be supportive of those who already hold elective office when they endorse initiatives such as minimum wage legislation.
The country is beginning to move. A multi-faceted coalition can be built to achieve greater equality.