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Citizens United?

The need to get money out of politics may be the one thing Americans agree on.
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Democracy for sale, photo by McBeth

Photo by McBeth

These days, it often seems that Americans don't have much to agree about. But when it comes to what democracy is (and isn’t), it turns out we’re on the same page.

One year ago today, the Supreme Court handed down what may be its most significant decision in a generation. Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission found that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited (and unreported) amounts of money to influence the outcome of elections.

Regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum, we’re affronted by the idea that political influence can be so brazenly bought.

It didn’t take long for the impact of the decision to become apparent. In November's midterm elections, according to a report by Public Citizen, the amount of money spent by outside groups (i.e. not candidates or political parties) was 384 percent higher than in the midterms of 2006. About half of that money was untraceable, funneled through front groups that were not required to disclose where the money they spent (mostly on negative attack ads) came from.

It’s not hard to understand why this is so bad for our democracy. Poll after poll has shown that Americans oppose Citizens United by about 4 to 1. A new poll by Hart Research Associates [pdf] found that 82 percent of voters believe Congress should limit the amount of money corporations can spent on elections; 77 percent of voters believe that corporations have more control of our political system than average citizens do. An August poll sponsored by MoveOn.org found that 77 percent of people believe that corporate election spending represents “an attempt to bribe politicians” (compared to just 19 percent that bought the counterargument, that election spending is simply “a form of free speech.”)

Polls also show that this issue inspires not just disapproval, but a desire for serious action. The Hart survey found broad, bipartisan support for the notion of amending the U.S. Constitution to affirm that corporations don’t have the same rights as people, effectively overturning Citizens United. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats, 82 percent of Independents, and 68 percent of Republicans said they would support such an amendment.

(Though reform groups are working to counter the decision in a number of ways, such as by promoting public financing of elections, the need for shareholder approval of election spending, and a prohibition on political contributions by government contractors, a constitutional amendment is widely considered the best way to fully neutralize the ruling.)

Of course, a favorable public opinion poll is not the same as a vibrant movement to make the amendment a reality. As encouraging as these numbers are, what they don’t indicate is broad awareness of the issue. Only 22 percent of the people that Hart polled had actually heard of Citizens United before taking the survey; the rest based their opinion on a brief description of the court decision and proposed amendment.

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Clearly, there’s a lot of work yet to be done. Widespread belief in the need to keep corporations out of politics isn’t much without widespread awareness of how deeply entrenched corporate power already is.

But what’s amazing is how much potential energy there is around this issue (remember that science class drawing of a boulder on top of a hill?). When people learn about Citizens United, it produces strong reactions. Regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum, we’re affronted by the idea that political influence can be so brazenly bought.

What all the polls tell us is that we have more in common than we often admit. Americans are increasingly reporting feeling marginalized by our own political system. That emotion is manifesting in very different ways, from Tea Party anger at government to progressive disgust with corporations. But what we all seem to share is a very fundamental expectation of what democracy should be—and an awareness that this isn’t it.

We agree on what’s wrong; we even agree on how to fix it. What we need now is to believe we can. As Public Citizen president Robert Weissman noted on a conference call about strategies for passing a Constitutional amendment, “The biggest obstacle we face is convincing people it’s achievable.”


Brooke Jarvis

Brooke Jarvis wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Brooke is YES! Magazine's web editor.

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