(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Democracy has taken quite a beating over the past several years, with the blows raining down from an increasingly activist and obsessively pro-corporate Supreme Court, voter-ID promoting Republican governors and legislatures, and Karl Rove’s empire of influence. It was easy to imagine, going into the November 6 election, that the fix was in. But the people pushed back, giving President Obama a 3.4 million popular vote victory, a 332–206 Electoral College landslide, a Senate that is more Democratic and more progressive, and a House with considerably fewer Tea Party extremists. Reversing the pattern of the 2010 Republican wave, voters chose labor-backed Democrats in seven of eleven gubernatorial races and handed key legislative chambers in New York, Maine, New Hampshire and other states to Democrats.
This has led some commentators to imagine that a template has been developed for defending the will of the people in the face of unprecedented financial and structural assaults on the democratic process. But that’s a naïve assumption. It obscures the fact that a combination of gerrymandering and right-wing Super PAC money prevented Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats from regaining control of the House, and that many state capitols are still dominated by anti-union die-hards like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Ohio Governor John Kasich and their allies. And just because an incumbent president, reasonably well-funded Democrats, and fully mobilized labor, reproductive rights and civil rights activists were able in 2012 to push back against an unprecedented onslaught of right-wing Super PAC money does not mean they will be able to do so when more sophisticated and ever more abundantly financed conservatives return in 2014 or 2016—as they surely will.
The better lesson to take from 2012 is that voters really do want a fair and functional democracy, and that Democrats and their allies should use the authority they have been handed to fight for it. Americans do not want to cede control of their communities to austerity appointees, as evidenced by Michigan’s rejection of the emergency manager law that Republican Governor Rick Snyder deployed to overrule local elected officials. Americans recognize the danger of GOP-backed barriers to their right to vote, as Minnesotans showed by rejecting a constitutional amendment mandating photo voter IDs. And they do not want corporate money to dominate our politics any more than they want corporations to dominate our lives.
In Montana and Colorado, voters overwhelmingly supported calls for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling—and with it, the fantasy of “corporate personhood.” That ruling, decried even by Senator John McCain as the “worst decision ever” from the High Court, ended a century of controls over the corporate dominance of politics. The Montana and Colorado votes align those states with California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont—all of which have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. And dozens of communities across the United States—including Chicago, San Francisco and conservative Pueblo, Colorado—have backed local resolutions promoted by groups like Common Cause, Public Citizen, Free Speech for People, and Move to Amend. Most did so by margins as wide as the 3–1 statewide votes in Colorado and Montana.
Montana went a big step further, electing as its governor Steve Bullock, the crusading attorney general who waged the boldest battle against the use of Citizens United to wipe away state laws that bar corporations from buying elections. Bullock lost that fight before the same Supreme Court that handed down the initial ruling, but his gubernatorial victory—after a campaign that declared, “If you believe elections should be decided by Montanans, not out-of-state corporations, stand with Steve Bullock”—offers a reminder that advocacy for real reform is smart politics.