A disturbing pattern has emerged repeatedly during Barack Obama's turbulent tenure in Washington: no matter what piece of progressive-minded legislation gets introduced, powerful corporate interests find a way either to kill the bill or thwart the provisions our gilded class finds most onerous. Sometimes they succeed completely (the Employee Free Choice Act); other times they score partial victories (healthcare reform). But those with the most money rarely lose outright. And then came the Supreme Court's January 21 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which greenlights unlimited corporate spending in federal elections and grants corporations the same free-speech rights as individuals, severely impairing our already dilapidated democracy.
The Court's ruling prompted immediate despair among progressive activists. "This decision will warp our democracy forever if we let it do so," says New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. No longer could the festering issue of corporate involvement in electoral and legislative politics be ignored or simply remain the province of "good government" activists. Yet the public backlash against the decision — highlighted by President Obama's rare criticism of the Court during his first State of the Union address — provided an opening for progressives to organize around a bold and far-reaching reform message. "Citizens United was the breaking point for folks," says Ilyse Hogue, director of political advocacy and communications for MoveOn.org. "We needed a comprehensive vision, as a movement, for how to have a voice in our own democracy."
Starting in May, MoveOn organized more than 150 community forums across the country and consulted with experts in the public policy, netroots and legal communities to craft a progressive response to Citizens United. In late June MoveOn members overwhelmingly approved a three-part "Fight Washington Corruption" pledge calling for (1) overturning the Court's decision through an amendment to the Constitution; (2) passing the Fair Elections Now Act in Congress, which incentivizes candidates to collect small donations by offering competitive public matching funds; and (3) enacting tough new laws cracking down on the revolving door between government officials and lobbyists. A diverse coalition of advocacy groups, including the SEIU, Democracy for America (DFA), People for the American Way and The Nation signed on as co-sponsors. MoveOn called it "our most ambitious campaign ever."
The pledge has more than 400,000 signatures as of press time, and the goal is to gather 1 million by Election Day. Congressional candidates will be urged to sign it during the August recess, and by September, MoveOn plans to endorse those candidates who have enthusiastically embraced the reform message and target those who've most egregiously repudiated it — including corporate Democrats. "The goal is to make the election a referendum on corporate power," says Hogue. "For the first time, our members are sensing the need to go systemic." Frustrated by the lack of gains in the Obama era, MoveOn leader Sandra VanderVen, a real estate agent in Seattle, says members in her area are "excited to launch something huge and see where it goes."
There are no quick fixes to the Court's decision. "The fight for campaign finance reform and to overturn Citizens United is a multiyear, massive undertaking," says DFA political director Charles Chamberlain. An amendment to the Constitution hasn't passed in two decades. There is little appetite in Congress for stricter lobbying reforms. The Fair Elections Now Act, with 157 House co-sponsors, has the best chance of getting a vote and passing that body this year, but the math is much tougher in the Senate, where the bill has only twenty-two co-sponsors and has yet to receive a hearing in the Rules Committee. A legislative stopgap, the DISCLOSE Act, which requires a wide array of political groups to list their donors and identify themselves in ads before the election, passed the House in June but doesn't yet have the sixty votes needed to break a Republican filibuster in the Senate. It also exempts a few lucky behemoths, most notably the NRA, from disclosure requirements, and, at best, offers a return to the broken, pre–Citizens United status quo. The bill's flaws only underscore the need for more fundamental and structural long-term reforms. "Progressives have to grapple with this central truth — we can't solve the country's problems if we don't fix the systems of democracy," says Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. "This has been a missing argument for the first year and a half of the Obama administration."
There is still a debate in Washington over what kind of impact the Court's decision will have on future elections. Labor unions have thus far outspent corporations in post–Citizens United spending, but that imbalance will likely be reversed by November. Conservative groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove–backed American Crossroads, are already planning to spend $300 million in 2010 hammering Democratic candidates, according to a Democratic Party memo obtained by the Washington Post. "I'd be shocked if we went through this cycle without someone pulling the trigger," de Blasio says, noting that nothing — except the fear of a public backlash — prevents a company like ExxonMobil from unloading $1 million to influence a pivotal House or Senate race. De Blasio and New York City comptroller John Liu have been urging large financial firms like Bank of America to voluntarily disclose their political spending, with some success, by introducing shareholder resolutions and threatening consumer boycotts. "People have to feel like their spending could backfire tremendously," de Blasio says.
The aftershocks of Citizens United have initiated what Waldman calls "a mass teachable moment about the need for systemic reform." Combined with widespread public anger at big banks in the wake of the financial crisis, the time may be ripe for a Teddy Roosevelt–style populist crusade that transcends typical ideological barriers, linking the inequities in our economy to the staggering amount of money in our political system. "I don't really think this is just a progressive issue," says Keith Rouda, a MoveOn leader and business consultant in Louisville. "Before we're done, it'll be a little odd and it'll feel a little weird, but I think we'll be marching down the street with some Tea Party people."