"The greatest political reform of our time will be to abolish the legal concept of 'corporate personhood' and the inherently anti-democratic equation of money with political speech," says Bill Moyer, the energetic founder and executive director of the Backbone Campaign, the grassroots movement to embolden Americans to push back against corporate power and political corruption.
Across the country Friday, that debate was opening up.
Pushing back against an activist US Supreme Court that has given corporations carte blanche to warp not just our politics but the republic itself, grassroots reformers and activists have used the one-year anniversary of the court's lawless decision in the Citizens United v. FEC case to argue that democracy itself is endangered when corporations are allowed spend without limitation or accountability to influence elections.
The Citizens United ruling eliminated century-old restrictions on corporate spending to support favored candidates and to oppose those who might side with consumers, environmentalists, labor unions and communities.
The corporations recognized the opening given them by the hyper-partisan majority on the high court and seized it.
"The outrageous, misguided and illogical Citizens United decision has empowered corporations and endangered our democracy. Secretive corporate and billionaire donors exerted an outsized influence over Election 2010," explains Public Citizen executive director Robert Weissman. "Their spending now casts a pall over all lawmaking, because any members of Congress who challenge corporate interests know they now risk facing a barrage of attack ads in the next election. And all parties agree that 2010 was just a warm-up for 2012. This is no way to run a democracy. That's why a growing movement is working for passage of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United."
That movement was making itself heard Friday in dozens of cities and towns across the country, from a "Get Corporations Out of Politics" gathering on the village green in Hyannis, Massachusetts, to a "Rally to Legalize Democracy" in Kent, Washington, to a "Wake for Democracy" in Madison, Wisconsin -- where dozens of activists braved temperatures hovering around zero to cheer speakers on the steps of the State Capitol.
In Washington, a "For the People" Summit coordinated by Moyer and supported by a cross-section of reform groups—including the Alliance for Democracy, American Independent Business Alliance, Backbone Campaign, Center for Media and Democracy, Changing the Game, Code Pink, Coffee Party USA, Common Cause, Democracy Matters, Democrats.com, Fix Congress First, Free Speech For People, MoveOn, Move to Amend, PeaceMajority Report, People for the American Way, Progressive Democrats of America, Public Citizen, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom—heard Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig and leaders of the movement to amend the Constitution in order to renew the founding faith that free speech in a human right that must be shouted down by corporate spending.
Annabel Park, of the Coffee Party (as opposed to the Tea Party) appeared to argue that the fight must be understood as more than just a struggle between Republicans and Democrats or liberals and conservatives. It goes, she suggested, to the heart of questions about the future of representative democracy. “It’s very hard to make progress on any issue without addressing the problem of money in politics, because right now it takes a nearly impossible amount of effort for ordinary people to compete with the daily influence that entrenched lobbyists enjoy," she explained. "To succeed, we need to step outside the traditional left-right-center framework and find common cause across the political divide.”
C-SPAN covered the event and has achived the video as: "Impact of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission."
John Bonifaz, co-founder and director of Free Speech For People campaign, told activists: "Free speech and other constitutional rights are for people, not corporations. The Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United will go down in history as contrary to the constitutional principles set forth by the Framers establishing a government of, for, and by the people. On this one-year anniversary of the ruling, we must renew our commitment to fighting for a 28th amendment to the Constitution that ensures that people, not corporations, govern in America."
That message was echoed by Lisa Graves, a former deputy Assistant Attorney General and top aide to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"A year ago, we warned that the Roberts Court was wrong to 'celebrate' expanding the power of corporations in our elections and policymaking," says Graves, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy and a key player in the Move to Amend campaign. "The unparalleled spending by Wall Street in this past election has proven the validity of our fears of the power of their money to spin the issues and distort our democracy and that's why nearly a million Americans have signed petitions against the Supreme Court's terrible decision and millions more will join us in this fight the coming years."
That broad grassroots support, in combination with the organizing that is going on nationwide, gives Moyer confidence that, despite the difficulty of amending the Constitution, and despite the even greater difficulty of holding corporations to account, this is a movement that—one year after the Citizens United ruling—is emerging as a powerful and effective force for change.
The task that lies ahead is, indeed, "monumental." But, says Moyer, "I believe…it can be achieved in the coming years built on a foundation of community-based battles to return power to the People."