Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Citizens United and the Way Out

with 8 comments

[Updated below]

A common refrain is that until the problem of money in politics is dealt with, we can’t achieve anything.  Often, the focus is on Citizens United*, and the necessity of a constitutional amendment to overturn it.  The difficulty here should be obvious – enacting a constitutional amendment is exceedingly difficult, it would require gaining support from plenty of red states in addition to the blue and purple ones, it would require a set of strategies different from those common in campaigns now (i.e. ad driven, because why would big money donors support it), etc.  How could this be achieved in a system that is broken?  Obviously, one needs a way to improve the situation that can operate within the existing system, or there is no way out. By focusing on a constitutional amendment (without offering a path to get there), we offer people two choices – fatalism, or magic thinking. Neither view is very useful.**

It strikes me the key is to 1) find strategies that rely less on big money, preferably by harnessing the energy of the large majorities of Americans who oppose Citizens United and are concerned about corruption in politics and 2) finding reachable, intermediate goals  that could create a path to major change but wouldn’t require it in order to be achieved.

In terms of strategies, face to face interaction is more powerful than advertisements both in getting people to vote and in engaging them to act.  This would require building a permanent organizing infrastructure (that is, one that is not created and dismantled around individual campaigns). It would mean relying on volunteers over paid staff.  And it will require choosing frames that inspire excitement and support rather than those that poll well with independents. This sort of organizing can’t be limited to elections–when people mobilize to elect candidates and then demobilize when those candidates take office, the policy that results will be a disappointment, as corporate interests and conservatives will continue to fight.  It has to include battles over policy and organizing in the workplace as well.

What about the intermediate steps?  Well, first corporations can be pressured directly to disclose their spending, and shareholders can pressure corporations not to use their money to advance political causes. (On the latter, remember the recent efforts to pressure corporations to stop supporting ALEC). The rules governing corporations could be changed to require them to get shareholder support in order to engage in electioneering or lobbying.  Public funding could be instituted at the state level (as long as they don’t include a trigger where candidates get more spending when they are being outspent the Supreme Court is unlikely to strike it down ,and it’s not clear that these triggers are necessary.)  And as an organizing infrastructure is created, it can be used to support candidates who in turn could be pressured not to use media strategies that require large donors.

None of this would be easy, but all of it is easier than a constitutional amendment.  Regardless, any approach has to operate within the system.

*I’m not convinced that Citizens United is the problem.  The system was fairly broken before that decision.  There’s little doubt that in the wake of the decision the amounts of campaign cash skyrocketed.  But simply returning to the pre-Citizens United rules would be no solution, and neither would placing spending limits on corporations alone.

**I’m leaving aside the question of disclosure, because I fail to see how 1) it’s possible using existing strategies or 2) why it would matter much.  I knew a number of people who worked in the business campaign finance sector in the late 90s. Back then, any conversation about campaign finance ended with their suggestion that the solution was full disclosure.  I don’t think it was because they wanted to limit the power of business.


David Dayen has a really good take on how the decision to go forward with a recall in Wisconsin narrowed the possibilities there that’s well worth checking out.  A taste:

The populist movement that arose from the uprising could have used every dollar given to a politician or an outside campaign spending group and used it in community-based organizing. We could have seen well-funded nonviolent actions. We could have seen education campaigns, going door to door with a message rather than an ask to support Tom Barrett or whoever else. We could have seen economic boycotts on Walker-supporting businesses. We could have seen more organizing into broad coalitions around the idea of repealing the rights-stripping collective bargaining law. We could have seen an insurgent movement, one that captured the energy of the uprising rather than re-channeled it.

Written by David Kaib

June 8, 2012 at 3:16 am

8 Responses

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  1. I totally agree that organizing around a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United would be a colossal waste of time and effort. As you say, it’s either fatalism (no win) or magical thinking that would propel such an effort. Then it occurred to me that Citizens United is practically a household word. It has instant recognition for organizing purposes. And, after this election, its effects should be painfully obvious.

    So, maybe organizers would do well to capitalize on this instant recognition. Your suggestions for intermediate steps would require public pressure to succeed. The process of organizing in opposition to the way our elections are run could generate other solutions.

    I also agree that returning to a pre-Citizens United is no panacea for our ills. For example, it would do nothing to fix the economy. But maybe the process of organizing people around a familiar topic would have long-lasting benefits.

    Michele Kelly

    June 11, 2012 at 2:46 am

    • I actually don’t think that organizing around a constitutional amendment is a waste of time (although I completely understand why many think so). Big change does happen, and rarely is it predicted or expected. My concern is with the failure to identify the path to get there, and making sure we see that the path has to include steps which would make things better, even absent an amendment. Absent a path, it’s magical thinking. With a path, it’s a really ambitious goal, but I think we need more ambition.

      Your point about Citizens United is spot on. It is recognizable, it is powerful;. I think for a lot of people it’s a symbol of what’s wrong with our government, not only the role of money is politics but also the ways that government serves those at the top at the expense of everyone else. And I think it’s important to tell a story about a system that was broken that then was overwhelmed like a tidal wave with wealthy money (hopefully with a better metaphor than that). Something has changed for the worse, but as you say, that doesn’t mean things were already fine. I can’t envision a path that doesn’t harness that energy, and that means talking about Citizens United, although that is only a piece of it.

      It’s true too that the general state of the economy is a related, yet separate issue. As long as a small number of people are fabulously wealthy, they will have inordinate power, and yet fighting equality is made more difficult as a result. If we can use this conversation to also talk about that, then we’d really get somewhere. In the end, I think I’m trying to say something about how we talk these things rather than whether we do.

      David Kaib

      June 11, 2012 at 5:24 pm

  2. I wish I had something really constructive to offer, but you’re raising one of the most nightmarish conundrums in American political life. Big Money has always been a problem in the US. CU merely ensconced, in institutional terms, the concept of “One Dollar, One Vote.”

    I don’t think any kind of project aimed at influencing public opinion about this issue is a waste of time. That, however, doesn’t mean I think any number of them will do the job. The main reason is this: since our electoral system is essentially bought, any strategy that revolves around electoral solutions–and I include a constitutional amendment, since either public voting or legislative voting are involved–that also means playing the game on Big Money’s terms.

    They can always buy the media and enough pols, not to mention field staff out the wazoo, to dominate the discourse. So that little problem will have to be integral in any strategic thinking.

    Indeed, with so much of the institutional “left” (meaning Democrats, labor leaders, minority constituency group leaders, enviro leaders and so forth) being essentially in-the-tank and thusly neutered… it seems making real inroads on any issue of import at this point is a most daunting task indeed.

    So, I like the idea of pushing constitutional remedies. Not because it will do the trick (soonish, anyway), but rather it’s a good way of raising awareness. But I wouldn’t limit anything to one or two options. Many is better. Of course, the “liberal” groups that are up to their necks in the current system need to come around on all this. That’s a tough nut to crack. Most politicians are also up to their eyeballs in Big Money, so that’s another massive problem.

    It seems to me that in terms of movement-building, electoral options are not the way to go. That will have to occur at some point, but it seems non-electoral methods, like strikes and such, would probably yield better results. Because we are, in a sense, starting from scratch now.

    With no institutional allies to speak of, one simply has to organize along different lines. For example, I would start with bread & butter issues, then use the political money problem as the means of identifying the source of their social strife. But all this is going to take a fair amount of time.

    Ford Prefect

    June 11, 2012 at 9:19 pm

  3. I think one of the most important things is the making of demands. For me, I’m open to any activity that involves organizing and getting in the face of power. In terms of money, the real paradox for me is that I don’t think money is more powerful than person to person organizing, but relying on big media has been standard for so long most don’t realize there are alternatives. The greatest power for government is to never have people demand anything.

    Your comment is reminding me about Lawrence Goodwin’s The Populist Moment. Goodwin talks about how the populists, especially in TX, created a movement culture that challenged the dominant culture of the day. They created a network of newspapers and a speakers bureau that sent speakers around the country, delivering their message directly to people. It’s odd how today we have so many technological tools that would allow us to to do the same, yet our conversation continues to be deeply shaped by the minutia of popular and political culture.

    David Kaib

    June 12, 2012 at 2:24 am

    • Agreed on making demands. The speakers’ bureau has a very nice ring to it for me.

      You’re also spot on about real face-time being more powerful than money. I’ve done that enough to see it happen.

      It’s odd how today we have so many technological tools that would allow us to to do the same, yet our conversation continues to be deeply shaped by the minutia of popular and political culture.

      It’s not terribly odd, really. Children from a very early age are indoctrinated through television, much of which has reactionary origins in Disney stuff. It’s like a person who has a car wreck and has the reality of it confirmed by seeing it on television. The medium makes it “real.” So I think people are remarkably susceptible to negative influences, even if it’s just a matter of being ignored by news outlets. How common is it on prog-blogs to hear complaints about the media ignoring X?

      At some point I’m sure people will stop caring about it and move forward anyway. But it’s almost like an addiction, this attachment or need to be validated by the media. For the corporations, on the other hand, it means the hundreds of billions of dollars they’ve spent over the last 50 years were well spent!

      Ford Prefect

      June 13, 2012 at 12:54 am

  4. I can’t stand Disney for just that reason. Jennifer Hochschild pointed this out a while ago.

    The theme of most Walt Disney movies boils down to the lyric in Pinocchio: “When you wish upon a star, doesn’t matter who you are, your dreams come true.”

    Nonsense of course. It does matter who you are, not because people get what they deserve, but because things are not fair. And wishing is worthless, fighting for it is what matters – with others.

    David Kaib

    June 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm

  5. […] voting (turnout as the solution to big money) more often the solution is ending Citizens United, a rather tall task if one begins with the notion that big money necessary gets what it […]

  6. […] hear this in the often expressed idea that Citizens United has led to uncontrolled power for the super-wealthy, and that all hope for any progressive change […]

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