America is experiencing a rare and dramatic moment of grassroots advocacy for fundamental reform of our elections.
Unfortunately, the political and media elites that define our discourse are doing their best to ignore it.
So it remains in America as it has ever been; Thomas Jefferson was indeed right when he told George Mason, “More attention should be paid to the general opinion.”
And the general opinion is that the money power, which has come to dominate our politics, must be checked and balanced.
With little in the way of financial resources and frequently dismissed even by pundits and politicians who claim to respect its goals, this movement to amend the Constitution to address the crisis of money in politics has secured official endorsements from thirteen states and close to 500 counties, cities, villages and towns nationwide. And when the boldest proposals of the movement to overturn the US Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Citizens United v. FEC are placed on the ballot, they win by overwhelming margins.
That was confirmed again Tuesday by the voters of the nation’s second-largest city. Los Angeles electors were asked: “Shall the voters adopt a resolution that there should be limits on political campaign spending and that corporations should not have the constitutional rights of human beings and instruct Los Angeles elected officials and area legislative representatives to promote that policy through amendments to the United States Constitution?”
The Los Angeles Times, arguably the dominant media outlet in the community, actively opposed the measure, “Proposition C,” with editorials and signed opinion pieces ripping it as “a primal scream about the role of money in politics.”
The voters decided to scream. As loudly as they could.
Seventy-seven percent of them voted “yes”; just 23 percent voted “no.”
That’s a reasonably typical result—similar to the levels of support seen in Colorado and Montana when the those states weighed in on the issue last fall.
The LA resolution is not binding. But it is influential. Organizers for the city’s “Yes on C/Overturn Citizens United” campaign—including the city's active Common Cause group (which has been a leader on both money in politics and media-reform issues), the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) and the Money Out/Voters In Coalition—secured plenty of support from local and national reformers. They also got backing from national groups such as Free Speech for People, which is working with Common Cause to expand the recent discussion of scandals in Washington to include “the other scandal”—the obliteration of rules and regulations governing money in politics that has resulted from the Supreme Court’s interventions.
The LA campaigners may not have gotten the local paper’s support. But they got the backing of LA’s newly elected mayor, Eric Garcetti, and the newly elected city attorney, Michael Feuer. And they worked especially hard to get endorsements from the members of Congress who have the power to advance a constitutional amendment—securing significant support from US Representatives Karen Bass, Tony Cardenas, Janice Hahn, Lucille Roybal-Allard, Adam Schiff, Brad Sherman and Henry Waxman.
They also got another California representative to sign on: Nancy Pelosi.
The House Democratic leader has voiced her objections to the Citizens United ruling before. But getting her to sign on as a backer of the “Yes on C” campaign offers a reminder of why these grassroots initiatives matter. They ask something of members of Congress in a way that is hard to ignore.
As Derek Cressman, who directs the Common Cause “Only People Are People” campaign to reverse Citizens United, notes: “Congress members may respect the opinions of the city councils, but councilors are not their ‘boss.’ Having voters directly instruct members of Congress, their ‘employees,’ carries a certain obligation to respect.”
John Nichols is the author (with Robert W. McChesney) of the upcoming book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America. Hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fervent call to action for reformers,” it details how the collapse of journalism and the rise of big-money politics threatens to turn our democracy into a dollarocracy.