What If ‘Citizens United’ Actually United the Citizens?

What If ‘Citizens United’ Actually United the Citizens?

What If ‘Citizens United’ Actually United the Citizens?

A week full of progressive victories—SOPA, Keystone and Wisconsin recall efforts—bring great reminders about the long game of organizing.


After a long, dark period of stagnation and pay-to-play politics, we’ve just seen a flurry of progressive victories that could upset the conventional wisdom about a post–Citizens United world.

Citizens United has reshaped the landscape, paving the way for the proliferation of political ads in early primary states, many of which would formerly have been illegal. There is no denying the decision’s impact on nearly every issue: spending legalized by Citizens United was partly responsible for Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin in 2010, and, moving forward, Citizens United–enabled ads will be full of messages about President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone pipeline. But another, albeit indirect, result of Citizens United is actually a positive one: a realization by progressive groups that financial competition is futile—prompting altered strategies that play to progressives’ strengths.

Consider the events leading up to the Senate’s January 20 decision to postpone the Protect Intellectual Property Act vote, which would have been almost unimaginable just one week before, when PIPA and its House counterpart, SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act), were considered done deals. Only an awkward alliance of political geeks and new-media companies stood in the way of an entertainment industry power grab. But the bills’ promoters failed to anticipate the power of “Blackout Wednesday” to popularize the outrage. Suddenly, 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.

The tactical decision to pull down popular websites was tailored to these bills, but two other recent victories—the rejection of the massive Keystone oil pipeline and the submission of more than a million signatures for the recall of unionbusting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—were also made possible by fusing old-school community organizing with innovative netroots strategies.

The Keystone pipeline deal was all but signed when a small band of climate activists mounted a week of direct action at the White House this past summer. As the civil disobedience peaked, groups quickly followed up with sustained organizing of Obama volunteers and donors who publicly committed themselves to withhold re-election support if the pipeline was approved. In the final tally, there were more than 1,000 arrests and more than 1 million petition signatures. Public statements flooded the White House, and Washington received close to 40,000 calls opposing the pipeline in one day.

The Wisconsin recall effort, netting more than 1 million signatures, is a similar story of block-by-block organizing coordinated with savvy online work [see John Nichols, page 6].

None of this is to say that money doesn’t matter and political ads are on their way out. After all, $13 million was spent on ads in the lead-up to the South Carolina primary, and
$12 million is now pouring into Florida. The result of Citizens United has been more ads, by less identifiable players, with a much uglier tone. The decision should be overturned.

At the same time, though, this onslaught of ads has made Americans crave limits on election spending. A new CBS poll shows that a majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents favor limits both on how much individuals can give to candidates and how much outside groups can spend on ads. A total of 67 percent of respondents said outside spending should be limited, and less than a third favored the current system. A different poll shows that two-thirds of small business owners believe that Citizens United hurts their interests.

The influx of such huge sums of money has also forced smaller groups to re-evaluate their reliance on a saturated media market to deliver a message, and has catalyzed new investment in breakthrough organizing. The popular momentum behind such campaigns may well be evidence that instead of disengaging in a post–Citizens United world, voters jump at concrete opportunities to show their power.

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