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The measures of books written by politicians are never simply literary.
Books written by the women and men who might, maybe, just possibly run for president are invariably judged by electoral standards.
So it is that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s fine new book, A Fighting Chance, will be assessed both for its composition and for its potential to spark the popular uprising that might make a reasonably populist Democrat a contender for the presidency, the vice presidency or a top cabinet post in a next administration.
Warren says she is not running for president in the 2016 Democratic nomination contest that too many pundits have already decided will be won by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—just as they had already decided the 2008 nomination fight for Clinton. Warren’s statements have been consistent in that regard. On the CBS Sunday Morning program this week, she was pressed repeatedly on the issue. “I’m not running for president,” Warren reiterated, cutting her interviewer off with a warning that “you can ask it lots of different ways” and still get the same answer.
Warren has a reputation as a straight shooter. But even straight shooters have been known to resist entreaties to seek the presidency, or to accept an invitation to join a national ticket, right up to the point at which they hear the siren call.
Candidates and potential candidates write books for two reasons. At their worst, they seek merely to advance their own ambitions. At their best, they seek to frame the debate—not necessarily with a precise platform; often with an ably developed premise, as was the case with the two best-selling books that a young Barack Obama wrote before launching a presidential bid that in its early stages was grounded at least in part on a stack of favorable reviews.
But reviews, and even sales, do not necessarily translate into votes. The finest “idea” book written by a political figure who was angling for a presidential run, Wendell Willkie’s 1943 text One World, got him precisely nowhere in his 1944 run for the Republican nod. Folks showed up at Willkie events seeking autographs on their copies of the enormously popular book and then voted for Tom Dewey or Franklin Roosevelt.
It was different with John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1957 book that positioned a very young Massachusetts senator as both an intellectual and as something of a bipartisan prospect for the presidency. And his impressive collection of foreign policy observations, 1960’s Strategy for Peace, helped Americans to imagine how the Democratic nominee would chart a course through Cold War politics. The first book was critical to getting Kennedy into the 1960 race as a serious contender, the second provided him with foreign-policy credibility for a contest with Vice President Richard Nixon.
Warren’s text is a relatively standard political book, as least in comparison with those by Willkie, Kennedy and Obama. But it strikes the right ideological tone for a moment in which Warren’s long-term issues—income inequality, middle-class misery, Wall Street excess and accountability—have finally gotten notice from a traditionally neglectful media, and from a Democratic Party that is in need of a new playbook.
It is with all of these understandings that the professor-turned-senator’s tenth book enters the long list of political tomes that will be read not only for their ideological insights but for hints about practical politics.
Let’s begin by stipulating that, apart from any political calculus, Warren has written a good book. It’s appropriately biographical, relatively frank and quite strong with regard to the pathologies of our politics and our economics. The book is at its best when it explores those pathologies, as when Warren recounts her effort to establish and lead what would become the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Recalling a meeting with Congressman Michael Grimm, R-NY, she writes: “When I launched into an enthusiastic description of what we were trying to get done at the agency, the congressman looked surprised. After a bit, he cut me off so he could make one thing clear: He didn’t believe in government.” Warren wryly observes that Grimm believed in a lot of government—including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for which he worked before embarking on a political career, and the “government-paid health insurance [he got] when he joined Congress”—“but not other forms of ‘big government’ and certainly not a consumer protection agency.”
Warren’s book is tougher on Republicans than Democrats, despite the fact that Democrats were responsible for many policies and approaches she opposed as a crusading Harvard Law School professor and ally of the late Senator Paul Wellstone. She generally goes easy on the Clintons and is gentle with Barack Obama—though she does do some damage to Larry Summers, whose Diet Coke–drenched seminar on how to be an insider Warren recounts to devastating effect.
The senator seems most comfortable in the realm of ideas and debate, especially when she goes after those who would have the government stand down as a regulator and enforcer of the rules.
“We can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend that if ‘big government’ disappears, so will society’s toughest problems,” she writes. “That’s just magical thinking—and it’s also dangerous thinking. Our problems are getting bigger by the day and we need to develop some hardheaded, realistic responses. Instead of trying to starve the government or drown it in the bathtub, we need to tackle our problems head-on, and that will require better government.”
With knowing references to right-wing dogma, those lines are being read as a shot at Tea Partisans such as Ted Cruz and sort-of-libertarians like Rand Paul. But Warren goes a good deal deeper, pressing the point that government is needed. It’s a personal message, rooted in her experience as a girl growing up in a working-class Oklahoma family.
The biographical sections of the book are the most poignant, especially as the senator recalls her mother, shaken after Warren’s father suffered a heart attack and afraid about losing the family home, pulling on a best dress and heading out to take a low-wage job. Warren makes the right connections, arguing in conversations about this story that, “we came right to the edge of losing our home. My mother saved our home with a minimum wage job. But in the 1960s, a minimum wage job would support a family of three above the poverty line. Not today. Not even close.”
The reasons why it is “not even close” are highlighted throughout Warren’s book, in which one chapter is titled “Bailing Out the Wrong People.” But the real heart of the matter was summed up in the working title of this book, Rigged—“It refers to how the economic system’s too often rigged against families who work hard and play by the rules—and how it’s loaded in favor of those with money and power,” she told an interviewer last year.
Book titles change for a lot of reasons.
But no one should miss the point of the title change for this book. Warren and her publisher decided that Americans don’t need another bummer book about a broken economy. They need some hope that a rigged system can be fixed so that it doesn’t always favor “those with money and power.”
A knowing optimism is better for book sales.
It is, as well, better for presidential bids.
There is little reason to disbelieve Elizabeth Warren when she says that “right now” she is focused on electing populist Democrats like Iowa’s Bruce Braley and South Dakota’s Tim Weiland to the US Senate, and on keeping that chamber in Democratic hands. But should Democrats find themselves casting about for a populist in 2016—either because a front-runner stands down or because economic justice issues take precedence—there is good reason to believe that they might be drawn to a potential candidate whose book announces, “I’m here to fight for something that I believe is worth absolutely everything: to give each one of our kids a fighting chance to build a future full of promise and discovery.”
Editor’s Note: Click below to listen to Elizabeth Warren read from the prologue to the audiobook version of A Fighting Chance.
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Phase IV of the Keystone XL Pipeline Project would, if approved and constructed, cut across the state of South Dakota from its northwest corner through hundreds of miles of ranch land to the Nebraska border. If all the promises of jobs for workers and protection for the environment that have been made by Keystone proponents were well grounded, there’s good reason to believe that Rick Weiland might be on the forefront of efforts to get the project up and running.
Weiland’s a rural-state Democrat seeking to hold a Senate seat that has been in Democratic hands since 1997. It’s a hard race, where the pressure is on to appeal across lines of partisanship and ideology in a state that has not backed a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Political pundits would, no doubt, make excuses for Weiland if he finessed the Keystone debate with a politically convenient bow to Nebraska legal deliberations and ongoing assessments of the potential impact by federal agencies—as the US State Department did with its just-announced delay of a decision on whether to approve the $5.4 billion initiative.
But Weiland, a former congressional aide and regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has a long record of balancing economic and environmental concerns. And he is not prepared to avoid the issue.
The Democratic contender declares flatly, “I’m opposed to it.”
Like the members of the Cowboy Indian Alliance of ranchers, farmers and tribal communities from along the pipeline route, which this week is rallying in Washington to urge the administration to reject the Keystone XL proposal and protect the environment, Weiland has sorted the issue out in practical terms.
“[There are] huge environmental impacts,” he said in a March interview during a visit with members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe on the fourth-largest Indian reservation by land area in the United States. “You look at what it takes in terms of the extraction of the oil and the energy that is consumed to do that, the transportation—the fact they have to heat the tar sand up so it becomes almost liquefied—through a pipeline that crosses over precious water resources like the Ogallala [the shallow water table aquifer that underlies portions of South Dakota and seven other states] and the potential for the damage that could occur, and the fact that we’re not really getting anything for taking on that risk. I think that in and of itself is reason not to build it.”
Weiland notes that because the Keystone project is an export pipeline, “very little if any of the oil, tar sand oil, that’s going to be coming through South Dakota is going to stay in the United States. Most of it is going overseas.”
At the same time, he expressed doubts about the suggestion that the project would create jobs. “The last report I read, which was put out by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) basically said we’re talking about thirty-five full-time jobs, permanent jobs, and we don’t even know how many of those are going to be in South Dakota. And the 2,000 that it’s going to take to build the pipeline, those are temporary jobs,” Weiland explained to Sustainable Dakota’s Tasiyagnunpa Livermont.
The Obama administration continues to wrestle with the Keystone issue. There are now suggestions that the wrestling could extend until after the November election. That’s earned the president criticism from Republicans such as Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources, who called the delay “a stunning act of political cowardice.” And from Democrats such as Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who chairs the committee and called the delay “irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable.”
At the same time, opponents of the pipeline are frustrated and concerned. “Keystone XL poses a grave risk to our land, water and climate, and breaks long held treaties, and President Obama still has an opportunity to do the right thing and reject the pipeline,” argue activists with the Cowboy Indian Alliance’s “Reject and Protect” campaign. “But he won’t take it unless we commit ourselves to principled action and push him to step up.”
The president and his aides and appointees undoubtedly feel pulled in many directions.
In the end, they must make a choice.
And in doing so they would be wise to consider the reasoned position of Rick Weiland, who says that “what you end up having at the end of the day is an awful lot of risk associated with the construction of this and the potential for impacts on the environment and very little reward, and that’s why I’m opposed to it.”
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“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”
So wrote Pope Francis in his first apostolic exhortation. Released last fall, the pope’s Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), is a nuanced yet urgent document. And it makes for good reading at a point when Americans are wrestling with the social, political and practical implications of income inequality, poverty and the failed austerity agenda of the trickle-down fabulists.
As Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby, explains it, the pope’s exhortation is rooted in an understanding “that reality—read, real people’s lives—is more important than any theoretical construct.”
To that end, Network, the group that sent Nuns on the Bus to congressional districts across the country in 2012, has launched a year-long project that used the pope’s message to encourage new thinking and new organizing to address inequality and injustice.
The key is the thinking. The United States is a secular nation, founded with respect for a diversity of religious belief and disbelief, and regard for Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church & State.”
Sister Simone and her allies understand that, just as Jefferson took counsel from the texts and teachings of the various religious traditions, contemporary Americans can be encouraged to consider the moral implications of poverty amid plenty. And to consider the reality of what inequality means for those who former Vice President Hubert Humphrey referred to as “those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
Sister Simone argues that this consideration can, in turn, “cause us to grow in a way that a federal budget battle or a Congressional Budget Office report never will.”
What Network is inviting is a rethink that could discomfort elected officials who have spent their careers neglecting a duty to the poor.
The exhortation from Pope Francis does not mince words in order to comfort those who are ill at ease with an economic-justice gospel. Nor does he dodge questions regarding the fundamental responsibility of those in power: from President Obama to Paul Ryan.
“It is the responsibility of the State to safeguard and promote the common good of society,” writes the pope. “Based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, and fully committed to political dialogue and consensus building, it plays a fundamental role, one which cannot be delegated, in working for the integral development of all.”
The pope, as a spiritual leader, a Jesuit scholar and an increasingly influential voice in global economic debates, rejects the notion that government cannot, or should not, play a vital role in addressing the inequality that translates as poverty amid plenty.
“I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots—and not simply the appearances—of the evils in our world! Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.”
The pope is a good deal more specific with regard to the definition of “the common good” than most American politicians—be they Republicans or Democrats. “We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a ‘dignified sustenance’ for all people, but also their ‘general temporal welfare and prosperity,’” he writes. “This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives.”
The translation of a common-good agenda into reality—getting beyond dialogue to action, as the pope suggests—will not, for the most part, be done by the politicians. Americans, religious and secular, motivated by morality and practicality, will have to do most of the work.
That is why Network, in much the same way that it did with the Nuns on the Bus project, is focusing on popular education and organizing.
Against the pressures of a money-drenched politics and a money-driven governance, Network is asking people to think and to feel and to act on behalf of the common good. It is probably fair to call the project a leap of faith. But in an age on damaging inequality, surely, this is a necessary leap.
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The anti-Obamacare machine that has been so carefully assembled by the Koch brothers and their billionaire boys club would surely blow a gasket. The right-wing echo chamber would go nuclear. And the Republican National Committee, Mitch McConnell and all the senators and contenders who have staked their 2014 prospects on a run against healthcare reform would make a big deal of laughing out loud.
But among the savvier of their number, it might well be a nervous laughter.
What could cause all this consternation?
Democrats have urged departing Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to run for the US Senate from Kansas. A Sebelius spokesperson discounted the prospect, saying she was focused on the transition out of her current job. But The New York Times reported that Sebelius, who served two terms as the Democratic governor of Kansas during the Bush years, was considering the prospect of challenging US Senator Pat Roberts, a relatively drab conservative Republican who is currently facing a primary challenge from a vaguely more interesting conservative Republican.
A Sebelius run remains an unlikely prospect. The outgoing cabinet secretary has been through a lot over the past few months, and the notion of turning around and seeking the Senate from a state that has not elected a Democrat to the chamber since 1932 would definitely qualify as daunting.
Already, there is plenty of think-inside-the-box commentary that dismisses the idea. The purveyors of conventional wisdom at FiveThirtyEight are quick to declare that “Kansas Has Moved on From Kathleen Sebelius.”
“Sebelius for Senate?” a Washington Post headline argues. “It makes no sense.”
That is undoubtedly the case—if the country remains forever locked in November 2013.
But the politics of November 2014 won’t look anything like the politics of November 2013.
Indeed, those who actually turn the pages of their calendars recognize that a lot has already changed since Obama and the Democrats hit the political skids late last year.
The Affordable Care Act, implemented by Sebelius, is now exceeding goals. More than 7 million Americans were signed up by late March. And less than a month later, as noted by President Obama a press conference Thursday, the figure has risen to 8 million. Another 3 million people have enrolled in expanded Medicaid and children’s insurance programs. And the overall number of Americans with healthcare coverage will increase by millions more before the end of 2014.
As Obama says, “This thing is working.”
That does not mean that every voter has forgotten about the complexities and controversies that attended the first stages of Affordable Care Act implementation. Nor will it alter the view of millions of Americans (including this writer) that Obama, Sebelius and the rest of the administration should have embraced a single-payer “Medicare for All” initiative, rather than the complicated and expensive Affordable Care Act model.
But access to healthcare is expanding rapidly in America. And attitudes toward the Democrats who have advanced reforms are changing just as rapidly.
The latest Reuters-Ipsos poll finds that since February support for the Democratic position on healthcare reform has been on a steady rise, while support for the Republican position has been just as steadily declining. The most recent survey, released this week, found that 32 percent of voters favored the Democratic position, while just 18 percent thought the Republicans offered a better approach.
President Obama’s job approval numbers have experienced a similarly steady pattern of improvement. In early December, the Real Clear Politics average of major polls found that disapproval of Obama led approval of the president by 16.1 points. By this week, that number had been cut almost in half, to 8.3 points.
The most recent McClatchy/Marist poll puts Obama at a 45 percent approval rating, while a new Rasmussen Reports survey has him at 46 percent. That’s below the 51 percent support the president received in his 2012 re-election run, but it is worth noting that, in April 2012, the Real Clear Politics average had Obama at just 47 percent.
The political calculus is changing. Suddenly, instead of running for cover, some Democrats are starting to argue that their party should “defend ‘Obamacare’ unabashedly.” Healthcare industry consultant Bob Laszewski told the Associated Press this week, “I think Democrats have the ability to steal the healthcare issue back from Republicans.”
Which brings us to Sebelius.
Most Americans know her only as a member of the president’s cabinet.
But before she came to Washington she was the Democrat who cracked the code in Kansas. A state representative who focused on consumer and healthcare concerns, Sebelius was elected to the Kansas state House during Ronald Reagan’s second term, and re-elected when George Bush was carrying the state with ease in 1988 and 1992. In 1994, the year that a wave election swept Republicans into control of the US House and US Senate (with Kansan Bob Dole as majority leader), as well the governorship of Kansas, Sebelius upset the Republican calculus and won a populist campaign for state insurance commissioner. She blocked insurance industry mergers and made a name for herself defending the rights of women, got re-elected with ease and was named as one of Governing magazine’s top public officials in the nation.
Eight years after her initial election as insurance commissioner, Sebelius took on an even bigger challenge. In 2002, a year that was looking to be very good for Republicans, especially in Kansas, she ran for and won the governorship by a 53-45 margin. Four years later, she was re-elected with 58 percent of the vote. Her ability to win big in a red state inspired rounds of speculation about vice presidential and even presidential prospects for Sebelius, who chaired the Democratic Governors Association in 2007.
For those who know Sebelius only from the headlines of the past few months, the prospect of a Kansas run this year may still be hard to imagine. But Sebelius has a record in Kansas—both as an administrator and a candidate.
Does that mean she is destined to win? Of course not. Republicans openly mock the prospect of her returning to the Kansas ballot. There’s no question that Sebelius has taken a battering from the GOP over the past six months, nor is there any question that as a candidate she would take a battering from the GOP over the next six months. Additionally, there are cautious Democratic strategists, in Kansas and nationally, who recognize that the party’s position is improving and don’t want to take any risks that might alter that trajectory.
But it is simply unrealistic, not to mention politically foolish, to assume that the 2014 election script is so deeply written in stone that surprises will not occur. Sebelius was an unlikely winner in 1986, 1994 and 2002. Were she to run this year, she would energize grassroots Democrats in Kansas—even if she would have to persuade them to reconsider their support for the able contender who is already in the race, Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor—and nationally.
A Sebelius run would at the very least make the Kansas Senate contest a referendum on healthcare reform—and on the broader question of whether it makes sense to try to solve problems in an age of gridlock, obstruction and political pettiness. If popular sentiment continues to trend in the direction of the president and his party when it comes to the question of how to address healthcare issues, Sebelius could find herself in a position to argue that, against all the naysaying, the United States remains a country that can actually take on great challenges and master them. The troubles she experienced along the way don’t necessarily undermine that narrative, as big tasks are never accomplished easily.
If Sebelius were to run in Kansas, with a recognition of the challenges she faced but with no apologies for taking on the second toughest job in Washington, she would be campaigning not on defense but on offense. And if there is one lesson that Democrats would be wise to learn, it is that there are advantages to playing offense.
That’s a lesson Sebelius has known since she was a young woman.
In 1964, her father, John Gilligan, was elected as a Democrat to represent a traditionally Republican region of Ohio in the US House. He voted as an unapologetic liberal, giving especially enthusiastic support to the Social Security Amendments of 1965, which created Medicare and Medicaid. His positions were not popular with a lot of the voters back home, and he was defeated in 1966. Two years later, he lost a race for the United States Senate as an unabashed anti–Vietnam War liberal, and a lot of pundits said his run was done. Then, in 1970, he bid for governor of Ohio and won a contested Democratic primary in a year when President Richard Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew and a lot of pundits were predicting a backlash against enthusiastic supporters of civil rights and social welfare programs.
John Gilligan refused to buy into the calculus that said 1970 would follow the script that Nixon and Agnew imagined at the start of the year. He rewrote the script, and he won that gubernatorial race by almost 350,000 votes.
The only sure way to lose an election is not to run. If Kathleen Sebelius were to bid for the Senate this year, she would challenge not just an often inaccurate conventional wisdom but the Democrat Party’s tendency toward an excess of caution. And that, in turn, could reshape the debate about healthcare and a whole lot more.
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On the morning after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, its initiator and director declared no victory.
Indeed, A. Philip Randolph announced, “We will need to continue demonstrations.”
Randolph, who was born 125 years ago today, took the long view.
“Legislation is enacted under pressure,” argued the labor leader and civil rights pioneer who had first called for a March on Washington in 1941, when he was advocating for the integration of defense industries. “You can’t move senators and congressmen just because a measure is right. There must be pressure.”
Randolph, who from his initial days in the 1920s as the essential organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters made the union both a labor and civil rights organization, played the pivotal role in making the 1963 march a reality. He insisted on its extended message: that of a campaign for “jobs and freedom” that recognized the vital significance of linking economic and social justice.
Randolph believed in making concrete economic demands, and in following them up with pressure for specific and meaningful action by presidents and senators, governors and mayors. As a Socialist Party stalwart, who backed the presidential candidacies of Eugene Victor Debs and Norman Thomas over those of the major party contenders, Randolph had no allegiance to Democrats or Republicans. He put his faith in organizing, demonstrating and marching. He was a partisan on behalf of economic justice and democracy.
Late in the day of August 28, 1963, after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had finished his “I Have a Dream” speech, Randolph and King joined civil rights and labor leaders for a visit with John F. Kennedy at the White House. The invitation was important, as it represented a presidential embrace of a march that Kennedy and his cautious aides had initially dismissed and discouraged. But Randolph did not imagine that the official welcome meant that the whole of the march’s agenda had been embraced. He and his allies kept the pressure up for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, signed those measures.
But Randolph kept making demands.
Along with other key figures from the March on Washington, labor allies and top economists, he returned to the White House in the fall of 1965 and began outlining a “Freedom Budget For All Americans” that had as its goals
the abolition of poverty
guaranteed full employment
fair prices for farmers
fair wages for workers
housing and healthcare for all
the establishment of progressive tax and fiscal policies that respected the needs of working families.
The Freedom Budget was a visionary document—so visionary that, even now, its language and its ambitions read like excerpts from a speech by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a call to organize fast-food workers or the agenda of Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and the “Fight for 15” drive to establish living-wage protections.
It proved, however, to be too ambitious for the 1960s.
Lyndon Johnson gave Randolph a Medal of Freedom but not a full embrace of the Freedom Budget. While the War on Poverty was surely influenced by Randolph’s advocacy—along with the writing of the labor leader’s friend and ally Michael Harrington—it never saw the commitments that the aging labor leader or the young writer sought.
Nothing saddened Randolph more, as he believed that the Freedom Budget was essential to making real the full “jobs and freedom” promise of the March on Washington, a promise expressed by Dr. King in his stirring plea “to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
Interviewed in the mid-1970s, as he was nearing his ninetieth year, Randolph explained, “My philosophy was the result of our concept of effective liberation of the Negro through the liberation of the working people. We never separated the liberation of the white working man from the liberation of the black working man.”
“The unity of these forces,” argued Randolph, “would bring about the power to really achieve social change.
The March on Washington was an epic event in American history. It occurred on a single day, but it was part of an arc of history that began long before August 28, 1963, and that extends to the present. A. Philip Randolph, who lived until 1979, was able to reflect on a good measure of that history. But he was not inclined toward self-congratulation. Rather, in his last interviews and speeches, he recalled the Freedom Budget and he spoke of the work yet to be done.
Among all the reasons for recalling Randolph’s remarkable contributions, it is perhaps most important to remember that Randolph was not satisfied. The March on Washington bent the arc of history toward progress, but Randolph never stopped applying pressure—to Democratic and Republican presidents, to members of Congress of both major parties and every ideology. He was an independent radical who always believed, as he said on that morning in 1963, “We will need to continue demonstrations.”
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Citizens United is not just the default reference for US Supreme Court decisions—including the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling—that have ushered in a new era of corporate dominance of American elections. It’s the name of the conservative group that encouraged Chief Justice John Roberts and the most activist Court majority in American history to tear the heart out of what were already weak campaign finance laws.
Citizens United still exists as an activist group that produces documentaries—ACLU: At War with America, Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration, Fire From the Heartland: The Awakening of the Conservative Woman, America at Risk: Hosted by Newt and Callista Gingrich—and organizes gatherings that highlight right-wing policies and politicians. On Saturday, Citizens United hosted something of a kickoff for the Republican presidential race in the first-primary state of New Hampshire.
Organized in collaboration with the Koch brothers–funded Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Citizens United’s “Freedom Summit” attracted a list of peakers that included leading contenders (and wannabes) for the GOP nod. Indeed, Greg Moore, the director of AFP-New Hampshire, described the summit as the first “cattle call” of 2016.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul made his pitch to the Koch crowd.
So did Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
And former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
And perennial (if never quite announced) contender Donald Trump.
The Freedom Summit was not entertaining objections to the latest Supreme Court decision to steer more big money into politics—in the case of McCutcheon v. FEC—or to the political machinations of bottom-line corporations and self-serving “mega-donors.”
But across town, on the same day, the objection was raised.
The New Hampshire Institute of Politics on the campus of Saint Anselm College was packed Saturday for a town-hall meeting with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who roused the crowd with a condemnation of the money power that is corrupting American elections and governance.
“In the United States of America, billionaires should not be able to buy elections,” declared Sanders, to thunderous applause.
“If we do not get our act together, we are moving towards an oligarchic society,” he continued, arguing that, “We have got to fight to defend American democracy.”
Like some of the Republicans who will be in New Hampshire this weekend, Sanders has talked about running for president. And his visit to the first-primary state has stirred speculation about a possible bid.
The independent senator says he is months away from any kind of decision. What he’s doing now is inviting progressives to join in a conversation about how to take on the money power. It’s a conversation he’ll carry forward May 9 and May 10 in Northampton, Massachusetts, with a series of events, including an appearance with the activist group Progressive Democrats of America.
What Sanders has already made his decision about the absolute absurdity of the High Court’s approach to cases like Citizens United and McCutcheon.
“What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” Sanders said after the McCutcheon ruling.“To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”
Sanders has also decided that a constitutional amendment is needed to push back against Supreme Court decisions that threaten to make the dollar more consequential than the vote in American elections.
The “Democracy is for the People” amendment, sponsored by Sanders and Congressman Ted Deutch, D-Florida, is one of several proposed by members of Congress in response to the national outcry over the Citizens United decision—an outcry that, so far, has seen sixteen states and close to 600 communities demand that the Constitution be amended to address the crisis created, and now compounded, by the court.
Section I. Whereas the right to vote in public elections belongs only to natural persons as citizens of the United States, so shall the ability to make contributions and expenditures to influence the outcomes of public elections belong only to natural persons in accordance with this Article.
Section II. Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to restrict the power of Congress and the States to protect the integrity and fairness of the electoral process, limit the corrupting influence of private wealth in public elections, and guarantee the dependence of elected officials on the people alone by taking actions which may include the establishment of systems of public financing for elections, the imposition of requirements to ensure the disclosure of contributions and expenditures made to influence the outcome of a public election by candidates, individuals, and associations of individuals, and the imposition of content neutral limitations on all such contributions and expenditures.
Section III. Nothing in this Article shall be construed to alter the freedom of the press.
Section IV. Congress and the States shall have the power to enforce this Article through appropriate legislation.
Sanders is blunt with regard to the crisis.
“The disastrous 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United threw out campaign funding laws that limited what wealthy individuals and corporations could spend on elections,” he has argued. “Since that ruling, campaign spending by Adelson, the Koch brothers and a handful of other billionaire families has fundamentally undermined American democracy. If present trends continue, elections will not be decided by one-person, one-vote, but by a small number of very wealthy families who spend huge amounts of money supporting right-wing candidates who protect their interests.”
And Sanders is blunt about the necessary response.
“Clearly, if we are to retain the fundamentals of American democracy, we need to overturn the Supreme Court decision,” explains the senator, who argues that the time has come for “overturning Citizens United.”
It is part of what Sanders sees as a :political revolution” that has as its point the establishment of electoral landscape where the vote matters more than the dollar.
In New Hampshire Saturday, Sanders summed the concept up with a declaration that earned a standing ovation:
“I vote for democracy!”
Many thoughtful media reports on the remarkable address that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren gave at the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s Humphrey-Mondale Dinner have focused on the fact that she took apart Paul Ryan.
There is no question that the senator from Massachusetts shamed the congressman from Wisconsin.
One report was headlined: “Elizabeth Warren schools Paul Ryan on poverty in 80 seconds.”
Another announced: “Elizabeth Warren Picks A Fight With Paul Ryan.”
All true. All accurate.
However, what Warren really did in her March 29 speech in Minneapolis was school Democrats with regard to what they should expect from a presidential contender.
Yes, yes, Warren has said that she is not running for the Democratic nomination in 2016. And there are plenty of polls to suggest that, were she to enter the race, she would not have an easy time competing with a prospective Hillary Clinton candidacy—although, notably, Warren’s numbers rise rapidly in hypotheticals that do not feature Clinton.
But let’s put the polls aside for now.
Let’s recognize that a necessary politics does not just reflect public opinion, it anticipates concerns and answers them in bolder and better ways than pollsters and pundits can calculate. Those who would lead the nation ought to offer much more than a set of approved talking points. There must be a vision, a language, that explains the crisis, and inspires a response.
This is a truth that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has brought into his discussions of a possible presidential run, especially when he suggests that any bid by a progressive in 2016 would have to be “revolutionary” in its rejection of the narrow thinking and narrow strategies that have produced low-turnout elections and low-results governance. Sanders gets that the politics of 2014 and 2016 must go deeper—as does Warren.
This has a lot to do with issues.
But it also has to do with approach.
Democrats can’t just talk about inequality. They have to address the economic and political underpinnings of insecurity and injustice. They have to challenge the assumptions of those who argue for the failed strategies of the past.
That’s what Warren did the other night in Minneapolis when she said to the DFL faithful, “So let’s take a look at what we’re up against.”
“Take a look at Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate for the Republicans,” she said. “Now let’s just look at the facts. Congressman Ryan attacked unemployment insurance, saying it is, and I’m quoting here, ‘a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.’ I am really serious: I want you to think about that. If our neighbors and friends who are laid off when a company moves overseas, or the recession shuts them down, Paul Ryan thinks that a little help—to try to help keep the mortgage paid and to put food on the table—will cause them to kick back and live large, with no plans to work again.”
Piecing together her argument, going not for applause lines but for a point, she continued. “While Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and I were working with other Democrats to extend unemployment benefits, Congressman Ryan actually doubled down, saying, and I am going to quote him again, ‘We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.’”
Then she pounced:
Paul Ryan looks around, sees three unemployed workers for every job opening in American, and blames people who can’t find a job.
In 2008 this economy crashed, wiping out millions of jobs. Paul Ryan says don’t blame Wall Street: the guys who made billions of dollars cheating American families. Don’t blame decades of deregulation that took the cops off the beat while the big banks looted the American economy. Don’t blame the Republican Secretary of the Treasury, and the Republican president who set in motion a no-strings-attached bailout for the biggest banks—nope. Paul Ryan says keep the monies flowing to the powerful corporations, keep their huge tax breaks, keep the special deals for the too-big-to-fail banks and put the blame on hardworking, play-to-the-rules Americans who lost their jobs.
Let me tell you: That may be Paul Ryan’s vision of how America works, but that is not our vision of this great country.
The DFL crowd gave her a knowing ovation—not just for a point well made but for a concept fully formed, an argument taken to its logical and effective conclusion.
Whether or not Elizabeth Warren ever runs for the presidency, she is teaching her party a great deal about how to take the events of a moment and weave them into a narrative that addresses the fundamental challenges facing the country.
This is powerful, and powerfully important—especially at a point when the Democrats are wrestling with how to connect with the great mass of Americans who feel insecure economically, who worry about income inequality, but who are not quite sure that either party is on their side.
When Democrats have been at their best politically, there has never been a question of where the party stood.
There was no lack of clarity, when Franklin Roosevelt referred in 1936 to “the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering,” and said, “They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”
There was no triangulation when Harry Truman announced in 1948 that, “On the one hand, the Republicans are telling industrial workers that the high cost of food in the cities is due to this government’s farm policy. On the other hand, the Republicans are telling the farmers that the high cost of manufactured goods on the farm is due to this government’s labor policy. That’s plain hokum. It’s an old political trick: ‘If you can’t convince ‘em, confuse ‘em.’ But this time it won’t work.”
And there was no mystery when Truman explained, “I’ve seen it happen time after time. When the Democratic candidate allows himself to be put on the defensive and starts apologizing for the New Deal and the Fair Deal, and says he really doesn’t believe in them, he is sure to lose. The people don’t want a phony Democrat. If it’s a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time; that is, they will take a Republican before they will a phony Democrat, and I don’t want any phony Democratic candidates in this campaign.”
Political parties are at their strongest when their tribunes argue for what they believe.
Elizabeth Warren knows this, instinctually.
And she knows this because she could not have missed the roar of approval from the crowd in Minneapolis when she told them, “I am fighting to level that playing field. I am fighting to build real opportunity—fighting to give every child a chance to build something extraordinary. And I want you to fight along beside me. We are in this together.”
Read Next: Elizabeth Warren steps up for populist democratic candidates.
Across the country, at the grassroots level, Republicans have formed alliances with Democrats to demand that the influence of money in our politics be reduced. As the reform group Free Speech for People noted last year, dozens of Republican legislators have backed calls by states for a Constitutional amendment to overturn not just the Citizens United ruling but other barriers to the regulation of money in politics. With backing from third-party and independent legislators, as well, the passage of the state resolutions highlights what the group refers to as “a growing trans-partisan movement…calling for the US Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) to be overturned, through one or more amendments to the US Constitution.”
In Washington, however, Republican reformers are harder to come by—as was evidenced by the celebrations of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling by GOP congressional leaders. Leaving no doubt about his faith that those with the most money get to speak the loudest in our elections, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, hailed the Court’s decision to strike down limits on aggregated campaign donations by wealthy Americans with an announcement that “freedom of speech is being upheld.” At the same time, one of the attorneys who argued for elimination of the cap on aggregate donations said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell—who Kentucky media noted “filed an amicus brief on the McCutcheon v. FEC case as a part of his continued crusade against campaign finance reform”—had been “extremely helpful” in pushing the court to go even further than McCutcheon’s legal team had initially proposed.
Yet, despite Boehner’s enthusiasm and McConnell’s ambition, the party leaders do not speak for every Republican in Washington.
Three years ago, Congressman Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, signed on as a co-sponsor of one of several proposals to amend the constitution in order to renew the power of the people and their elected representatives to regulate money in politics. More recently, he co-sponsored a proposal by Congressman Jim Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, to develop public financing for congressional elections. Jones is on board with Government By the People Act of 2014, a “matching-funds” plan offered by Congressman John Sarbanes, D-Maryland. And he is the only Republican co-sponsor of the Empowering Citizens Act, a plan by Congressman David Price, D-North Carolina, to renew the public financing system for presidential elections.
On his own, Jones has sponsored legislation to bar the use of political funds for personal purposes.
What is Jones thinking? “I think Citizens United was one of the worst decisions by the Supreme Court in my adult lifetime,” the congressman said last year. “In Washington, the problem is that the leadership in both parties—and I want to be fair about that: both parties—seem to like the system the way it is… When the Democrats were in the majority, it was very difficult for those [reform] Democrats to get the bills moving on their own side. And on my side, it’s almost like it’s a dead issue, which disappoints me greatly as a Republican. Now, I will work this year, across party lines, to reform the campaign laws of our nation.”
Like many of the most progressive reformers in the country, the conservative congressman speaks specifically about the link between special-interest influence on elections and political dysfunction in Washington. “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed,” he says. “The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.”
Congressman Jones is noting something that too many DC insiders, be they Republicans or Democrats, members of Congress or pundits, fail to recognize: millions of Americans are already engaged on this issue. Support for real reform is widespread, crossing lines of partisan and ideological division. Sixteen states and more than 500 communities have called for amendments with varied language but one point: that “based on the American value of fair play, leveling the playing field and ensuring that all citizens, regardless of wealth, have an opportunity to have their political views heard, there is a valid rationale for regulating political spending.”
Now, however, Jones faces a Republican primary challenge from a classic Washington power player, Taylor Griffin, a former aide to the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain who has been a consultant for big banks and trade groups and who put in a stint as the senior vice president for the Financial Services Forum, the DC voice of some of the biggest Wall Street banks. “[No] matter how he casts himself,” writes Politico, “Griffin is an insider.”
Griffin’s gripe with Jones appears to be that the veteran congressman is too independent-minded. And it is true that Jones breaks rank with party orthodoxy. For instance, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of US military adventurism, often working with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-California, on issues of war and peace. This has put him at odds with the Bush and Obama administrations, and more recently with House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, whose 2013 budget Jones said was too lavish in its funding of wars. But Jones is hardly a left-winger. He echoes the “old-right” language of conservative icons such as former Ohio Senator Robert Taft Sr. and former Nebraska Congressman Howard Buffett, and of some younger libertarian-leaning House members such as Michigan Republican Justin Amash.
What really bugs Griffin and his DC backers is that Jones does not follow the party line when it comes to doing Wall Street’s bidding. For the past decade, he’s been one of the steadiest congressional critics of free-trade agreements; and he recently joined twenty-one of his House Republican colleagues in expressing; opposition to “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority. And he’s been a steady critic of big banks, opposing bailouts, supporting regulation and arguing with Congressman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and others for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial and investment banking. Those stances undoubtedly played a role in getting Jones kicked off the House Financial Services Committee in Speaker John Boehner’s purge of so-called <“a href="http://projects.newsobserver.com/under_the_dome/walter_jones_kicked_off_house_committee" target="_blank">rebellious Republicans.”
Now Jeff Connaughton, the former Senate aide who wrote the book The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, suggests that Jones’s independence has earned him a challenge from Griffin in the May 6 Republican primary. “I doubt anyone in North Carolina needs me to point out this is a Wall Street bank hit job,” says Connaughton, who helped frame the fight for the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.
Bloomberg reports: “JPMorgan Chase (JPM) & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) are lining up behind Jones’ primary challenger, Taylor Griffin, an aide in President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department who later worked for groups that advocated in Washington for the biggest financial services companies.” Former Republican National Committee chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a top lobbyist, is a Griffin donor, as is former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Indeed, observes Politico, Griffin has had a cash influx from some of the most high-profile Republican lobbyists in Washington.
That’s helped Griffin get competitive with Jones, a rare accomplishment for a primary challenger. And as the May 6 election approaches, Griffin’s got the connections to bring in a lot more money. Like Mitch McConnell, he is a classic example of a candidate who could benefit in a very big way from the Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings.
Walter Jones will have a harder time tapping top Wall Street donors than Taylor Griffin—in no small part because of the incumbent’s record of saying “no” to the banks.
Most members of Congress have a hard time saying “no” not just to bankers but to big money in general. That’s one of the reasons why Jones has advocated for both financial services reform and political reform. The two go together. Indeed, in this era of Citizens United and McCutcheon, the measure of political independence must begin with a willingness to address the influence of money on our elections. It is Jones’s recognition of that fact that has made him a conservative advocate for reform. He understands that some truths go beyond partisanship and ideology, and the first of these is that, “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed.”
Read Next: Ari Berman on the Supreme Court’s ideology.
Even as the US Supreme Court attempts to expand the scope and reach of the already dangerous dominance of our politics by billionaires and their willing servants, Americans are voting in overwhelming numbers against the new politics of dollarocracy.
The headline of the week with regard to the campaign-finance debate comes from Washington, where a 5-4 court majority has—with its McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision—freed elite donors such as the politically-ambitious Koch Brothers to steer dramatically more money into the accounts of favored candidates, parties and political action committees. The decision makes it clear that the high court's activist majority will stop at nothing in their drive to renew the old Tory principle that those with wealth ought to decide the direction of federal, state and local government.
But the five errand boys for the oligarchs who make up that majority are more thoroughly at odds with the sentiments of the American people than at any time in the modern history of this country's judiciary.
We know this because the people are having their say with regard to the question of whether money is speech, whether corporations have the same rights as human beings and whether billionaires should be able to buy elections.
In every part of the country, in every sort of political jurisdiction, citizens are casting ballots for referendum proposals supporting a Constitutional amendment to overturn US Supreme Court rulings that have tipped the balance toward big money.
In so doing, these citizens are taking the essential first step in restoring democracy.
On Tuesday, thirteen Wisconsin communities, urban and rural, liberal and conservative, Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning answered the call of constitutional reform. Even as groups associated with billionaire donors Charles and David Koch were meddling in local elections in the state, voters were demanding, by overwhelming margins, that the right to organize fair and open elections be restored.
It even happened in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s hometown of Delavan, where voters faced the question:
Shall the City of Delavan adopt the following resolution:
RESOLVED, the City of Delavan, Wisconsin, calls for reclaiming democracy from the corrupting effects of undue corporate influence by amending the United States Constitution to establish that:
1. Only human beings, not corporations, unions, nonprofit organizations nor similar associations are entitled to constitutional rights, and
2. Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we hereby instruct our state and federal representatives to enact resolutions and legislation to advance this effort.
76 percent of the Delavan residents who went to the polls voted “Yes!”
They were not alone. A dozen other Wisconsin communities faced referendums on the same day. Every town, village and city that was offered a choice voted to call on state and federal officials to move to amend the US Constitution so that citizens will again be able to organize elections in which votes matter more than dollars.
The Wisconsin votes provided the latest indication of a remarkable upsurge in support for bold action to renew the promise of American democracy. Since the Supreme Court began dismantling the last barriers to elite dominance of American politics, with its 2010 Citizens United decision, sixteen states and more than 500 communities have formally requested that federal officials begin the process of amending the constitution so that the court's wrongheaded rulings can be reversed.
Last fall, John Bonifaz, the co-founder and executive director of the reform group Free Speech For People, calculated that “In just three years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, we have come one third of the way to amending the US Constitution to reclaim our democracy and to ensure that people, not corporations, shall govern in America."
Since the start of 2014, however, the movement has seen a dramatic acceleration in the grassroots pressure for action. During the first weeks of March, forty-seven town meetings called for a constitutional amendment—in a move that put renewed pressure on the New Hampshire legislature to act on the issue.
It is the experience of big-money politics that has inspired renewed activism for reform.
Wisconsin has had more experience than most states with the warping of democracy by out-of-state billionaires, "independent" expenditures and SuperPAC interventions. Governor Walker’s campaigns have reaped funds from top conservative donors, including the Koch Brothers. And a Koch Brothers-funded group, Americans for Prosperity waded into contests this spring for the local board of supervisors in northern Iron County, where mining and environmental issues are at stake; and in the city of Kenosha, where school board elections revolved around questions of whether to bargain fairly with unions representing teachers. In other parts of the state, business interests poured money into school board contests and local races Tuesday, providing a glimpse of the role corporate cash is likely to play in local, state and national elections in the months and years to come.
The Koch Brothers had mixed success Tuesday. Three Iron County Board candidates who were attacked by Americans for Prosperity mailings and on-the-ground "field" efforts in the county won their elections—beating incumbents who were promoted by the outside group. But in Kenosha, two school board contenders who were seen as anti-union zealots won.
There were, however, no mixed results when voters were given a clear choice between dollarocracy and democracy.
The signal from Wisconsin is that grassroots politics can and does still win.
In fact, it wins big.
Encouraged by groups such as United Wisconsin and Move to Amend, activists went door to door in the depths of winter to place amendment questions on local ballots in towns, villages and cities across the state. Many of the communities were in heavily Republican regions of Wisconsin. Yet, the pattern of support was strikingly consistent; in no community did an amendment proposal win less than 60 percent of the vote, and in several the support was over 85 percent.
“Citizens United opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending in our elections. Now, Wisconsin voters are standing up to the corrupting influence the flood of special interest money has had on our elections and in our state and national capitols where laws are made,” says Lisa Subeck, the director of United Wisconsin. “Tuesday’s victories send a clear message to our elected officials in Madison and in Washington that we demand action to overturn Citizens United and restore our democracy.”
Whether all those elected representatives will get the message remains to be seen. Several of the communities that voted Tuesday are in the district of Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Madison, who has already introduced an amendment proposal and has been an ardent backer of reform. But many other communities are represented by recipients of the big-money largesse of Wall Street traders, hedge-fund managers, casino moguls and billionaires looking to cover their bets.
Communities in the home district of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, voted by margins as high as three to one to support an amendment strategy. The results were similar in conservative Waukesha County, which has historically been a Republican stronghold; in the city of Waukesha, for instance, 69 percent of the electorate called for action to amend the constitution. In Wauwatosa, the Milwaukee suburb where Governor Walker now maintains his voting residence, the vote for an amendment was 64 percent.
Wisconsin has several legislative proposals to put the state on record in support of a constitutional amendment. But they face uphill climbs in the current Republican-controlled legislature. And Walker shows no enthusiasm for reforming the system that has so richly rewarded his campaigns. Yet, grassroots activists like Ellen Holly, who helped organize the amendment vote in Walworth County—the heart of Paul Ryan's district and Walker's old home turf—is not blinking. She says it's essential for the Move to Amend campaign to take the fight into even the most conservative areas and to deliver messages to politicians like Ryan.
The widespread support for overturning Citizens United, especially from rural and Republican-leaning areas offers a reminder that the reform impulse is bipartisan and widespread. The same goes from the broad coalitions that have developed. Among the loudest voices on behalf of the referendum campaign in rural Wisconsin was the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which hailed Tuesday’s voting as “a clear message that we the people are ready to take back our democracy."
“Citizens United has allowed big money to drown out the voices of ordinary people and created an environment where, too often, our elected officials are sold to the highest bidder,” says Subeck, a Madison city council member who this year is running for the legislature on a promise to focus on campaign-finance issues. “To fully restore public trust in our democracy, we must return control of our elections to the people through common sense campaign finance reform, starting with the reversal of Citizens United.”
Any doubts about the determination of an activist United States Supreme Court to rewrite election rules so that the dollar matters more than the vote were removed Wednesday, when McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission was decided in favor of the dollar.
The court that in 2010, with its Citizens United v. FEC decision, cleared the way for corporations to spend as freely as they choose to buy elections has now effectively eliminated the ability of the American people and their elected representatives to establish meaningful limits on direct donations by millionaires and billionaires to campaigns.
The Citizens United ruling, coming after many previous judicial assaults on campaign finance rules and regulations, was a disaster for democracy. But it left in place at least some constraints on the campaign donors. Key among these was a limitation on the ability of a wealthy individual to donate more than a total dollar amount of $123,000 total in each two-year election cycle to political candidates and parties.
With the ruling in the McCutcheon case—where the court was actively encouraged to intervene on behalf of big-money politics by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky—a 5-4 court majority (signing on to various opinions) has ruled that caps on the total amount of money an individual donor can give to political candidates, parties and political action committees are unconstitutional. In so doing, says U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, says the court has further tipped the balance of power toward those who did not need any more influence over the affairs of state.
"It is far too often the case in Washington that powerful corporate interests, the wealthy, and the well-connected get to write the rules," says Baldwin, "and now the Supreme Court has given them more power to rule the ballot box by creating an uneven playing field where big money matters more than the voice of ordinary citizens.”
The think-tank Demos says the high court's ruling has "overturned nearly forty years of campaign finance law," which is certainly true. But the court has done much more than that. By going to the next extreme when it comes to questions of money in politics, the justices who make up the court's activist majority have opted for full-on plutocracy—and it is unimaginable that this week's ruling will be the last assault by the justices who make up that majority upon the underpinnings of democracy.
Those justices have made their political intent entirely clear. Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito in a support of an opinion that rejects the notion that limits on the total amount of money that can be given by wealthy donors—such as the billionaire Koch Brothers or casino mogul Sheldon Adelson—are needed to prevent corruption. Justice Clarence Thomas went even further, writing an opinion that all limits on political contributions are unconstitutional. The extreme stance of Thomas—which would overturn the high court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo, which upheld basic contribution limits, may signal the next frontier for the court.
But the McCutcheon ruling will be more than sufficient for the big-money interests that worried that their ability to buy elections was hindered by what remained of campaign finance law.
“What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” asked US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”
The decision, while not unexpected considering the court's track record, horrified clean-government and campaign-finance reform activists.
“This is truly a decision establishing plutocrat rights. The Supreme Court today holds that the purported right of a few hundred super rich individuals to spend outrageously large sums on campaign contributions outweighs the national interest in political equality and a government free of corruption,” said Rob Weissman, the president of Public Citizen. “In practical terms, the decision means that one individual can write a single check for $5.9 million to be spent by candidates, political parties and political committees. Even after Citizens United, this case is absolutely stunning. It is sure to go down as one of the worst decisions in the history of American jurisprudence.”
Public Citizen and other reform groups associated with the Money Out/Voters In movement have organized a national “rapid response” to the McCutcheon ruling. Thousands of Americans are rallying today in cities across the country to protest the decision—and to call for a constitutional amendment to restore the rights of citizens to organize free and fair elections.
“We, the People insist that our government and our country remain of, by and for the people—all the people, not just those few who have amassed billions in wealth,” says Weissman. “A vibrant movement for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and reclaim our democracy has emerged since the 2010 issuance of that fateful decision. The demonstrations today—unprecedented as a same-day response to a Supreme Court decision—are just the latest manifestation of how that movement is now exploding across the country.”