Citizens Must Unite to End Citizens United

Call it a case of diminished expectations. It wasn’t all that long ago that we were debating the need for public financing of elections and hailing experiments in public funding in places like Arizona, Maine and elsewhere.

The idea was to create a system in which candidates did not need to go to the big money men to fund their campaigns, snapping the straps that bind politicians to the corporate world and distort the political process.

Then came the US Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Citizen United, the 2010 case that opened the floodgate to independent political expenditures by corporations and others and essentially stripped government’s ability to regulate corporate interference in electoral activity.

Corporations, the court said, were associations of individuals, meaning that corporate speech should be afforded the protections as individual speech. That seems a reasonable argument that is consistent with not just the First Amendment’s speech clause, but also its protections of peaceable assembly and the redress of grievances.

The problem is the court’s longstanding equivalence of money with speech, which tilts the playing field drastically in favor of corporations and the rich, and ultimately makes money more important than votes in most elections. The general prescription for dealing with noxious speech – more speech – is not possible in a system in which only those with exorbitant amounts of cash at their disposal have access to the airwaves.

Further complicating the situation, unfortunately, is the lack of rules requiring that donors to independent groups disclose their identities, meaning that the court’s Citizen United decision has allowed the political system to be flooded with money void of accountability.

The flood has made the idea of public financing seem quaint, because even the best public financing systems cannot compete in the current environment.

Congressional Democrats and some reformers are hoping to alter the landscape by applying sunlight. The Disclose Act of 2012, which has been stalled in the Senate as of this writing, would require corporations, labor unions, nonprofits, super PACs and other independent groups to disclose their donors once they spend $10,000 or more on campaign-related activities.

Warren Rudman and Chuck Hagel, retired Republican senators, called the legislation in a piece on the New York Times’ Campaign Stops blog “a huge improvement over the status quo.”

“This legislation treats trade unions and corporations equally and gives neither party an advantage,” they wrote. “It is good for Republicans and it is good for Democrats. Most important, it is good for the American people.”

The legislation, they write, will protect sitting legislators from “the possibility of being blindsided by a well-funded, anonymous campaign challenging his or her record, integrity or both.”

That seems an excessive claim. While donors would have to come clean, the money would still be there and the system will continue to drown in the flood. Transparency certainly is preferable to secrecy, but it will do nothing to clean up the electoral process.

The only way to do that is to cut the legs out from under the Supreme Court decision that has turned campaigns into a financial free for all. And the only way to do that is to amend the constitution to strip corporations of their “personhood” rights – treating corporations as individuals – and end the equivalence of money and speech.

Move to Amend, which formed in 2009 just ahead of the Citizens United decision, is hoping to do just that. The organization, a coalition of local and national groups, has been organizing, hoping to create momentum for a larger amendment campaign. It is necessary work, but it is going to take some time. And it is just the first step.

Once we strip corporations of personhood, we need to renew the effort to create public financing systems in every state for our elections and rewrite our laws to disempower corporations, to make them answerable to the people who grant their charters.

Hank Kalet is a poet and freelance writer in New Jersey. Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2012

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