Last month’s Supreme Court decision giving corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts on elections has struck a raw nerve.
In newspapers across the country, spontaneous letters to the editor decrying the ruling have poured in. Facebook and Twitter are teeming with rookie judicial analysis. Petitions to “abolish corporate personhood” have found a new life. Even President Barack Obama has weighed in, condemning the ruling in front of the Supreme Court justices themselves during his State of the Union address.
Indeed, the ruling in Citizens United v. FEC is so far-reaching and so unprecedented that some are saying it could produce a “true populist moment in American politics.” As more Americans realize what unlimited corporate spending will do to our already shaky democratic system, could a new progressive populism be afoot? And can this populism be used as a tool to revitalize campaign finance reforms?
The answer to these questions depends upon how, we, the progressive community, respond.
The Supreme Court’s ruling undoubtedly angers many people. It gives corporations more political power at a time when most people are still fuming from last year’s bank bailouts. And it flies against Americans’ basic sense of fairness, common sense, and democracy.
But this anger is also, for the most part, largely diffused. Outrage is coming from across the political spectrum—with many conservatives almost as worked up as mad-as-heck liberals—but much of this ire is being expressed in incoherent and isolated ways. For this angry populism to translate into a progressive force—and not just another justification for cynicism—we need these angry people to become part of a sustained political community that is connected to a real political program. To do this, progressive leaders need to find a way to tap into and feed this energy and help transform it into a sustainable, broad-based movement. Looking at how conservatives have utilized the tea bagger movement over the last year might be a good place to start.
But for this “populist moment,” to become a meaningful campaign reform moment, even more work will be required. To succeed, we need a renewed populist-progressive alliance—a fusion of popular anger with calls for common sense government reforms that change the structures and rules of the game. And we need to educate people about why these reforms would actually make a difference in the way the system works.
Campaign reformers and other policy experts can play an instructive role here by providing a specific policy course of action. Reformers need to remind people that although the U.S. Supreme Court has reduced the campaign finance reform tool kit, there are still meaningful things that we can do. And they must propose a reform package that not only addresses the specific problems that the Citizens United creates, but that also deals with the underlying money-in-politics crisis more generally.
Groups like Public Campaign and the Brennan Center for Justice at the national level and our campaign reform coalition here in North Carolina have provided a good blueprint. These groups are calling for a package of reforms that include new regulations on corporate governance in combination with public campaign financing options that allows candidates to run without a single dollar of special interest money. Smartly, they are presenting public financing not only as the most meaningful response to the Citizens United ruling, but as the only constitutionally viable way to level the playing field in an environment where corporations can take out million dollar attack ads. They’ve built a huge coalition of support for the Fair Elections Now Act, which would create a public financing option in all U.S. House and Senate races, and have created the infrastructure that other groups can use to organize around this effort.
But for these efforts to succeed, we need smart, sophisticated organizing. Advocates need to excite people about public financing’s potential to enlarge their voice and to elect candidates who better serve their interests. And they need to convince people that publicly-funded elections would be an effective antidote to special interest elections; that they would allow candidates to win elections without being a part of the corporate money monopoly. In other words, that they would really work.
Even more importantly, people need to feel like their involvement matters, and that they’re part of a real movement. Town halls need to be organized and local meet-ups scheduled. We need lobby days and letter drives, petitions and picketing. We need new groups to join the reform efforts and a wide array of government, non-profits, religious institutions, and civic organizations to endorse comprehensive campaign reform.
The potential for this populist moment to contribute to progressive reform is right in front of us. But it won’t happen without a smart package of policy proposals, good organizing, and a broad coalition. This might be the best opportunity for fundamental government reform that we’ve seen since the Watergate era, but it will be lost if we don’t seize it.
Chase Foster is the Director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections