The most important work in the struggle to address the damage wrought by the United States Supreme Court six years ago Thursday, when it issued the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, is being done at the grassroots.
Millions of Americans have voted, petitioned, marched, rallied and pressured candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate to support a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision that cleared the way for unlimited corporate spending to influence elections. They have had an impact. Sixteen states and more than 600 communities nationwide have formally asked Congress to initiate the amendment process; Democratic and Republican members of the House and Senate have endorsed amendment proposals; President Obama has talked up the idea; and the Democrats who are running for the presidency in 2016 are doing the same.
Still, the money power dominates our politics and our governance to such an extent that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren gets little argument when she says “the system is rigged” to favor the wealthy and powerful who, thanks to awful Supreme Court rulings (of which the Citizens United decision is only the best known), are able to shape debates and the decisions about the essential economic and social issues of our time.
Their dominance is being challenged this year by insurgent presidential campaigns, including that of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the sponsor of an amendment proposal that would “[make] it clear that Congress and the states have the power to regulate money in elections.” But for real reform to come, it will take more than a president and more than the current Congress; indeed, it will take more than an amendment. Sweeping reforms are needed to fix a system that has become toxic to democracy and the public interest.
Zephyr Teachout knows this.
A leader of MAYDAY.US, the national grassroots movement to fight corruption by electing reformers to federal, state, and local posts, Teachout is often compared to Warren—as an academic who has become an engaged and effective activist. The associate professor of law at Fordham University and author of Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United (Harvard University Press, 2014) applauds talk of legal and constitutional interventions. “But,” she explains, “I don’t think we should confuse that with the importance of a public financing system, because [an amendment] just brings us back to 2009—which [wasn’t] necessarily the good ol’ days.”