02/07/2013 11:41 am ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

The New Era

The impact of the Citizen's United Supreme Court decision has been as bad as we all anticipated. Unregulated political expenditures have skyrocketed. They stood at $147 million in 2008; four years later they were almost nine times higher, at $1.3 billion. Furthermore this figure is not complete. It includes only contributions that are reported to the Federal Election Commission.

But the problem is not only the size of unregulated political expenditures. Even more important is the extent to which a relative handful of super-rich individuals have become empowered to shape the political dialogue. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, during the 2011/12 election cycle, 200 individuals donated about $400 million (almost $2 million per person). Tellingly, 71 percent of these funds went to support conservative political causes and politicians.

This is a genuine crisis for democracy in general and progressive politics in particular. A handful of individuals by virtue of their wealth have come to possess inordinately excessive political influence. It is not so much a question of whether or not the candidates these wealthy conservative activists support are victorious. What is much more important is that their funds shape the nature of the political dialogue in the country. Because their interests are threatened by the environmental movement, global climate change was not discussed during the last election campaign. With income inequality ripping at the fabric of American society, the decline of organized labor was not an issue that surfaced. Money dictates the political agenda. An event like the tragedy in Connecticut can put a dent in that agenda. But the fact remains that the issues that progressives are concerned with typically are not even discussed in Congress.

Nevertheless, as Todd Gitlin has recently written, "the battles over plutocracy and government will continue." The question that has to be addressed is what form those battles will take and who will lead them.

Gitlin's response is that there is a need for "a persistent, independent movement... [with] a focused common program for the long haul... that... would make sense to millions who know that plutocracy threatens decent livelihoods, shared growth and a sustainable planet." He proposes a "99 Percent Charter" that includes the public funding of elections. As an organizational model he cites the Maine People's Alliance (MPA), a membership organization that promotes what it calls a Fair Share Campaign.

What Gitlin does not sufficiently point out is that, aside from the MPA, there are all too few organizations capable of building such a movement. Most progressive organizations remain committed to in-the-Beltway lobbying with little effort undertaken to develop activist memberships. During the 1960s and early 1970s, there was an explosion of social movements, in the forefront of which were students. But in the aftermath of these efforts, a new type of organization emerged. As Theda Skocpol has written, what was created instead of social activism were "professionally led advocacy associations focused on policy lobbying and public education." It is true that Occupy Wall Street represented a counter-trend. But its determination not to be sullied by mainstream politics meant that its shelf-life was short. For most people, sustained political engagement requires at least the possibility of reform. OWS' anti-politics stance denied the movement that hope.

A great irony in this is that movement-building is expensive. Political organizing is a labor-intensive activity. A professional staff is required. Unlike Beltway advocacy organizations, canvassers are needed, and the more the better. Volunteers are great. But it is not realistic to believe that they will be sufficient to achieve the scale necessary to sustain a movement to change the country. Paid organizers are needed.

Our handicap is this regard is obvious. There are many more conservative rich people willing to fund the Tea Party than there are progressive well-to-do individuals who subsidize grassroots organizing. Even the liberal foundations have shied away from doing so. Nevertheless the fact remains that liberal politicians have been able to secure enough money to run successfully for office. Something on the order of $150 million of independent donations were made to liberal super PACs the 2011-12 election cycle. Similarly, as diminished as it has become, organized labor remains a strong source of financial support for its allies. And once a movement is up and running donations from within the organization can be an important source of financial support. The problem of money can be solved.

The larger problem will be to reconfigure liberal political practice. Aside from OWS, it has been a long time since progressives in the United States committed themselves to grassroots organizing. By now there is a powerful self-interest in the preservation of a style of politics that involves grant-writing and lobbying, rather than efforts at one-on-one persuasion. But with Citizens United, we live in a new era.

Though wealth threatens to eviscerate democracy, its victory is not inevitable. However, the only force that possesses the potential to successfully overcome its dominance is the power associated with large numbers of activated citizens.