JUNE 25, 2012
To paraphrase Mark Twain, nearly everybody (everybody except conservative ideologues, of course) complains about rich people and big corporations bankrolling our campaigns, but hardly anybody seems to be doing anything about it. However, that has finally started to change: Recently, several Democratic lawmakers have introduced constitutional amendments that would overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United and give Congress and the states the power to prohibit or severely limit corporate donations in the future.
The proposed amendments aim to achieve those goals in different ways. That sponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Mark Begich (D-AK) would ban any spending by “corporate and private entities” on candidates and ballot measures. In contrast, the language in the amendment Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) introduced in the House this week, drafted by Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe, avoids targeting corporations by name: It states instead that the Constitution does not prevent Congress or the states “from imposing content-neutral limitations” on “private” or “independent” contributions to campaigns. But both bills express the same passionate yearning to drive the big money out of our elections—for good.
Of course, Congress, in its current composition, would sooner vote to socialize the entire health care industry than muster a two-thirds majority to scrap the system which put them into office. As is typical of issues that challenge the privileges and power of the wealthy, their reluctance has nothing to do with public opinion. Earlier this year, a poll of 1,000 likely voters found that close to two-thirds oppose the Citizens United decision; over half think corporations should not have the same rights to free speech as individuals. Yet, as long as Sheldon Adelson, the brothers Koch, and their ilk are eager to finance some politicians and destroy others, no proposed amendment of this kind will get beyond the agitational stage.
But that drawback can be turned into a virtue. Agitation has, in fact, been the initial purpose of many proposed amendments, including those that keep failing (like that which would require the federal government to balance its budget) to those that are now unassailable (like the 13th, which abolished slavery.) The idea of altering America’s foundational document can give focus and legitimacy to movements which need to show that the people are truly on their side. In 1994, the balanced budget amendment became the centerpiece of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America and helped conservative Republicans present themselves as tribunes of common sense. Of course, if enacted, it would have forced the government to slash spending in 2009 instead of increase it, turning the Great Recession into a second Great Depression. An amendment is good to campaign with before it has a chance to become law—and even if it never should.
For prime examples of amendments that helped movements grow, one can look back a century ago, to the aptly named Progressive Era. From 1913 to 1920, four major amendments were quickly passed and ratified—the 16th establishing the income tax; the 17th creating the popular election of senators; the 18th, prohibition of the business in alcoholic beverages, and the 19th women’s suffrage. Each victory capped a grassroots struggle that had lasted for decades and, for much of that time, had seemed rather hopeless. Suffragists and prohibitionists—whose ranks often overlapped—had begun organizing in the 1840s. The groundswell for an income tax, which, at first, only the richest citizens had to pay, and the push to democratize the election of Senators both grew out of the anti-monopoly fervor of the late 19th century. “When I find a man who is not willing to bear his share of the burdens of the government which protects him,” declared William Jennings Bryan in a brief for the income tax, “I find a man who is unworthy to enjoy the blessings of a government like ours.”
Each proposed amendment helped progressive organizers to focus the attention of the press, to galvanize supporters of their cause, and to unify campaigns that otherwise were fragmented by local desires and diverse constituencies. They enabled them to wrap their efforts in what Bryan, in that same speech, called “the armor of a righteous cause.”
For years, most liberals have avoided making campaign finance reform a signature issue or a particularly moral one. They fear it bores most voters, who believe government will always serve the highest bidders. Until the Citizens United ruling, it seemed easier to convince George Soros or David Geffen to spend his millions on Democrats than to demand that the money-changers leave the temple of democracy. Meanwhile, a few modern-day progressives immerse themselves in the technicalities of the corrupt system and float technical fixes. Do not waste your time in the “quixotic enterprise” of an amendment, writes Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post. Spend your time on “more practical efforts to tighten rules—stricter limits on coordination between candidates and super PACs, for example.”
Somewhere, perhaps, there is a talented activist willing to spend years of her life in a quest for tighter rules and stricter limits, but I have yet to hear about or meet her. To shake up a system that both parties have long abetted and the High Court has graced will require a massive effort by angry outsiders and those members of the political class who share their disgust. To transform that system will require having a true alternative in mind. Advocating for a constitutional amendment could aid both purposes. And the end result might even breathe some new life into that 225-year old promise to “promote the general Welfare.”
Michael Kazin’s most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.