Still from a Newt Gingrich campaign ad attacking Mitt Romney.
After a long, dark period of stagnant progressive momentum and pay-to-play politics, this week saw a flurry of progressive victories that could upset the conventional wisdom about a post–Citizens United world.
This morning’s announcement by Harry Reid that the Senate is postponing the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) vote would have been almost unimaginable as recently as a week ago, when PIPA and its House counterpart, SOPA (the Stop On-line Piracy Act), were considered done deals. Only a handful of disgruntled geeks stood in the way of an industry power grab that would have blessed online censorship and stifled innovation. But the bills’ promoters failed to anticipate the power of “Blackout Wednesday” to popularize the outrage. Suddenly, it wasn’t just geeks. Congress started fielding calls from people unable to sell couches on Craigslist and harried parents of students desperate to consult Wikipedia for school papers. Thus sounded the death knell for the bills.
While the tactical decision to pull down popular sites in protest of these bills were tailored to the Internet blackout bills, the other two major victories this week—the rejection of the massive Keystone oil pipeline and the submission of 1.9 million signatures to recall union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—were also made possible by fusing old-school community organizing with innovative netroots strategies.
Going into the week, news was dominated by the proliferation of political ads in early primary states, many of which would have been illegal prior to Citizens United. There is no denying that decision’s impact, on almost every issue: spending legalized by the Citizens United decision was partly responsible for the Walker victory in 2010, and moving forward Citizens United–enabled ads will be full of messages about Obama’s rejection of Keystone. Progressives have continually highlighted the ruling as a low point in a campaign world that comes with a multimillion-dollar entry fee. It’s true that experts warn that the proliferation of ads could result in voter disengagement.
But what if the net result of Citizens United is a realization by progressive groups that financial competition is futile, one that prompts altered strategies that play to progressive strengths? In the two years after the Citizens United decision, we’ve seen a renewed commitment to deep organizing and innovative rapid response that is threatening corporate-backed electeds and industry-promoted legislation alike.
Take the Internet censorship bills: the smug overreach of these industry-backed bills united both poles of the political spectrum and new media companies in an unprecedented wave of online activism that turned the tide and left both bills gasping for life on the eve of their vote. Google, a leading industry opponent, launched its first ever online petition, a move that netted it a staggering 7 million signatures. Websites as far-ranging as Wikipedia and I Can Haz Cheezburger? went dark on Wednesday to protest the infringement on their rights. Users expecting to laugh at cats instead learned of the imminent threat, and these collective actions popularized the outrage.