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Get Money Out of Politics

Get Money Out of Politics

Billionaires like Sheldon Adelson cast a long shadow over Washington due to their outsized campaign contributions. Adelson donated millions of dollars to right-wing PACs to support Republican candidates during the 2012 elections.

Despite all the divisions and distortions that dominated the 2012 election season, many Ameri- cans from across the political spectrum were able to see eye-to-eye on one thing: that the huge amount of

money being spent by candidates for public office is under- mining democracy. It’s a problem that can only be solved if approached with the seriousness and urgency it deserves.

Many people experience a deep level of despair after they’ve been through a campaign in which moneyed interests have played such a large role in both parties, supplying hun- dreds of millions of dollars to each side to ensure their future influence over the policies that both parties will pursue. That despair reinforces the powerlessness that many experience in our work lives and that then plays a role in limiting the fulfill- ment we get even in our personal lives, where we too often encounter people who have internalized the “me-firstism” of the competitive marketplace and view us too often through a frame of “what can you do for me to satisfy my needs?”

Even though we all yearn for loving connection and mu- tual recognition from others, that yearning seems to be constantly undermined by the actions of others who are too scared to break out of their own narrowly defined roles in society and acknowledge that they too have the same desire for real loving connection. As a result, many of us come to believe that everyone is just out for themselves and, as a re- sult, idealistic plans will never come to fruition. We come to believe that to be “realistic” is to accept the basic contours of

power and wealth in this society and then find a way either to access that wealth or resign ourselves to accepting our po- sitions in the economic hierarchy, and accepting our politi- cal powerlessness as inevitable, thereby accepting an unjust economy and social realities that most people resent or, at times, even detest.

The Power of Advertising

The despair and resignation that most of us feel is intensified by advertising, which presents and misrepresents “everyone else’s desires” in a way that makes each of us feel that our yearnings are peculiar rather than widespread. Ads leave us feeling that to be “normal,” we need to do what the ads are trying to get us to do. This manipulation works to the extent that we are isolated from each other, rarely talk about how foolish the ads and consumption-oriented media are, and live in a culture of separation, depoliticization, and nonparticipa- tion in democratic movements. That is another dimension of why money is so powerful—if people were deeply connected with each other on a daily basis and engaged in true commu- nities pursuing democracy, money would not be as powerful.

The point is not hard for people to grasp. If it takes close to a billion dollars per candidate for someone to run a success- ful campaign for the presidency, tens of millions of dollars to run for the Senate, and many millions to run for the House, then the candidates are going to have spend a great deal of time both during the campaigns and during their tenure in

vol. 28, no. 1, winter 2013 | © 2013 tikkun magazine | doi: 10.1215/08879982-1957396 tikkun 7

editorial By raBBi Michael lerner

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To truly protect democracy for the 99 percent, we would need to ban not just corporate campaign contributions, but also donations from the super-rich.

office playing up to those people in our society who have the ability to donate large amounts of money. On September 13, 2012, the New York Times presented the details of some of the richest donors to the Obama campaign and described how their donations bought them access to Obama and his inner circle, which in turn shaped Obama’s vision of “what the people really care about.” Why should we be surprised, then, if tens of millions of potential voters do not show up at polls? They’ve already seen that it is not they but the rich who will shape the ideas of candidates in both major politi- cal parties.

A democratic system should be based on the notion of one person/one vote. But in the United States today it would be more accurate to describe the political arena as closer to one dollar/one vote. Closer, but not exact. Those with money often determine which candidates will be able to buy the television, radio, newspaper, and direct-mail advertising, which in turn determines who is taken seriously by the media and eventually by voters. If you haven’t heard much about a candidate (e.g., a Green candidate or a Libertarian candi- date), you are unlikely to vote for that person unless you have a very strong commitment to that party and a willingness to stand up to friends who tell you that you are going to hurt a less principled candidate who will be the lesser evil in the election.

The Limits of Our Democracy

Money isn’t everything in elections—and it is quite possible for the richest campaigner to lose occasionally to another candidate who has spent less money. We saw that happen a few years ago in California when two very wealthy business-

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women, each with the ability to raise over 140 million dollars in their campaigns for governor and U.S. senator, lost to in- cumbent Senator Barbara Boxer and former governor Jerry Brown. But of course those Democrats had already proven their loyalty to wealthy donors, raised tens of millions of dol- lars, and courted powerful unions like the California Correc- tional Peace Officers Association, a forceful advocate of pro- incarceration and anti-rehabilitative policies in California.

So long as candidates prove themselves non-threatening to the wealthy and succeed at raising significant amounts of money from them, they can at times beat a better-funded opponent. In these circumstances, our votes matter in de- termining which of the two pro-capitalism candidates gets to win. So it’s not entirely true to say that our system is one based on one dollar/one vote: once the potential candidates have been vetted by the economic powerhouses and their al- lies in the media, the major political parties, and a significant section of the capitalist class, our votes do matter. In other words, we have a limited democracy in which our own po- litical involvement, such as campaigning for a candidate or voting, plays a significant role in choosing among candidates who have already proved their loyalty to the powerful.

In turn, the candidates must spend a significant amount of time courting the rich and their power-oriented allies in the corporations and media, not only to get their money for the next election cycle but also to prove to these donors that they are getting at least some of what they are paying for. This courting of the rich is an ongoing process, occurring both during the elections and also during the politicians’ time in office.

The nuance is important. It’s not that donors get absolute power to shape the votes and policies of each elected official, but that together as a group those donors shape a universe of discourse about what is plausible in politics and what is “realistic”; within that framework, politicians make choices that may at times offend one section of their donor base in order to please another section.

Once we get over the impulse to say that politicians are merely bought or bribed into their positions, and once we recognize that politicians experience themselves as having a range of choices and freedom to make them, we can then acknowledge the limits of those choices shaped by the entire system of money-dominated politics. So, for example, the New York Times’ failure to report regularly on progressive candidate Dennis Kucinich during the presidential prima- ries in 2004 was not due to bribery by the other candidates or to an order from the paper’s publisher or advertisers—it was due to the editors’ accurate belief that Kucinich would not raise the level of money necessary to be described as “realis- tic” because his policies were at variance with the interests of the wealthy and the large corporations with the money needed to fund candidates. As a result it seemed unrealis- tic for the media to give Kucinich’s views the opportunity | winter 2013

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to be heard by those who might, had they heard them, have given him far more support than he received in the primaries after his candidacy was systematically ignored and shunned by corporate media. Conversely, the mainstream media ac- corded a high level of coverage in 2012 to the candidacy of Donald Trump precisely because he had money and the ca- pacity to raise more from his wealthy contacts and hence was judged a “realistic” candidate—his inane ideas were conse- quently given much publicity.

But with all the qualification above, money does become a central factor in elections. This is particularly true in various referenda. In those states where democratic forces once had the ability to encode in the state constitution the right of the people to shape ballot measures, the initiative process has increasingly been dominated by those with enough money to hire people to collect the number of names needed to put on the ballot. Whenever a ballot measure is deemed to be in conflict with the interests of the rich and powerful, those with money pour tens of millions of dollars into advertising that systematically distorts what the ballot measure would accomplish if passed. Again, there are times when huge mo- bilizations of ordinary people, taking time away from their busy work lives and family lives, can push through a progres- sive measure despite the corporate media and the extensive advertising of the wealthy, but these are few and far between.

The Movement to Amend the U.S. Constitution

It’s easy to focus the outrage many Americans feel at the way the 1 percent controls politics on the 2010 decision of the Supreme Court now known (ironically enough) as “Citizens United.” That decision—built on a history of the Supreme Court treating corporations as “persons” and hence protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, and by the court’s decision that the expenditure of money is a form of speech or a prereq- uisite to effective speech—struck down the McCain-Feingold act that sought to limit the amount of money in politics. In late June of 2012, in the midst of a presidential campaign in which huge amounts of money from corporate-funded political action committees were already dominating public discussion, the high court voted five to four to summarily re- verse the Montana Supreme Court’s December 2011 decision to uphold the state’s Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, which similarly sought to regulate the way corporations could influ- ence elections. What the court made clear is that any attempt by state legislators or the Congress to put serious checks on how much money can be used in elections or on the role of corporations in trying to shape the outcome of elections will be declared unconstitutional. That is why we must take the more difficult and years-long process of getting a constitu- tional amendment passed.

The Montana decision should make it clear to anyone

who thought that legislation could repeal Citizens United that nothing passed by the Congress or by a state legislature would be sufficient to overturn Citizens United. It thus gave more impetus to the group called Move to Amend, a broad coalition that describes itself as calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution “to unequivocally state that inalienable rights belong to human beings only, and that money is not a form of protected free speech under the First Amendment and can be regulated in political campaigns.”

The current direction of the Supreme Court (whose most reactionary justices were confirmed by Senate democrats like Diane Feinstein) is the outgrowth of a thirty-year struggle to eviscerate the public sphere and the 1960s ideal of commu- nity by privatizing the whole culture in the name of liberty. The Supreme Court has framed the law for many years in ways that ignore or implicitly deny the existence of any “we” that could transcend the paranoid impulse (the worldview of fear) and affirm the loving impulse (the worldview of hope and generosity) that we seek to strengthen through Tikkun and our Network of Spiritual Progressives.

How to Pass a Constitutional Amendment

There are two ways to pass a constitutional amendment. The first requires that two-thirds of the House and the Senate approve the amendment and send it to the states for a vote. Then, three-fourths of the states must affirm the proposed amendment. The second way is through a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of the legislatures of the states. That convention can propose as many amendments as it wishes to the Constitution, and then send those amend- ments back to the states to become part of the Constitution when three-fourths of the states ratify any or all of those amendments.

Either direction would require a massive mobilization of grassroots forces to make the passage of an amendment possible. We witnessed that reality in the 1970s and 1980s, when a momentarily progressive Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment but then the women’s movement could not mobilize enough states to ratify it. We have argued that the struggle for the ERA was itself a major factor in chang- ing the status of women in this country. Many conservative states passed legislation to give women more rights as a way of heading off the more sweeping terms of the ERA. Most important, the public debate that the ERA generated made feminist ideas accessible to ordinary citizens who not only grasped them but intuitively understood their legitimacy. So such a campaign can have a major impact on public un- derstanding and defacto change much in American life and politics even if it never passes.

It is time to wage such a campaign beginning in 2013— but not a campaign whose primary focus is on overturning

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Citizens United, though that should certainly be part of the amendment. The problem with a Citizens United–focused amendment is that it would not address the fundamental problem of money’s powerful role in U.S. politics and the consequent limits to our democratic process. What it would do is useful and important—it would overturn the Citizens United decision by saying that corporations do not have the rights of natural persons and that the Congress and the states have the right to set limits on spending. If passed that would bring us back to the situation we faced prior to 2010.

But do you remember what it was like before 2010? Money still played a major role in shaping campaigns and will con- tinue to do so even if Citizens United is overturned. The money of the rich was so powerful a factor in the elections that candidate Obama had to abandon his promise to only take public monies and instead seek funds from the super-wealthy.

Overturning Citizens United Is Not Enough

Here are some ways that money will still undermine de- mocracy if all we do is what Call to Amend advocates:

1. Even before the McCain-Feingold bill’s limit on corporate donations was undermined by the Supreme Court, the rich were still able to “bundle” contributions from friends (each giving the legal $2,400 contribution to each of several candidates in the primaries and then again in the general election) so that a single person could hand the candidate $100,000 or even a million dollars assembled from wealthy friends. I witnessed directly how this bundling works a few years ago, when a wealthy donor to a particular candidate whom I had known from childhood unexpectedly asked me to be part of his packaging. Obviously I didn’t have the money, but that was no problem: the donor simply winked and handed me the $2,400 in cash so that it would cost me nothing to be part of his scheme. It was hard to say no, though I did, because he was actually offering me a way to cheat that would cost me nothing. Wealthy people and cor- porate managers do this all the time (sometimes with their employees), and they can continue to do this even if Citzens United is overturned by an amendment aimed at address- ing that problem. The amendment proposed by Move to Amend gives Congress and the state legislatures the right to put further restrictions on the use of monies, but it doesn’t require them to do so. Indeed, a selling point of the limited amendment that Move to Amend is proposing to Congress and the state legislatures is precisely that it allows them to elect not to pass any legislation limiting the amount of mon- ies individuals can donate or bundle together.

2. One of the huge disparities in the ability of candidates to get their message across is the need to buy airtime or to

convince major media that the candidates’ messages de- serve a focus on news or other programs. As a few corpora- tions have managed to buy up major parts of the media, corporate and wealthy-friendly station managers, publish- ers, and news anchors have been able to give disproportion- ate time and attention to the “realistic” candidates while effectively blocking the messages of those who challenge corporate power. There is no reason to believe that this would change even if Move to Amend’s limited amendment were to pass. When members of the public hear one side’s view over and over and over again, they tend to accept parts of that message as plausible, even when it isn’t.

3. The daily experience of life in large corporations tends to reinforce the dominant worldview that all people are out for themselves, that nobody really cares about your long-term well-being except you, and that consequently the only ratio- nal way to act is to focus always on maximizing one’s own advantage. Looking out for number one and believing that material rewards are the key to the good life are instilled not only by the media, but also by corporate culture’s idea of a “bottom line.” This in turn shapes what most of us think is realistic to ask for in our dealings with the elites of wealth and power that run both the corporations and the politics of the larger society.

4. Even if an amendment to overturn Citizens United is passed, corporations will still have the power to threaten to move their assets and jobs out of the United States and to other countries where there are fewer environmental con- trols and demands for labor rights. Even the most liberal politicians feel that they have to show that they are creat- ing a good environment for corporate profits, lest they be charged with having failed to prevent a “capital strike” in which the rich simply move their assets and jobs elsewhere. It is this huge power of corporations that makes many poli- ticians believe that they have no choice but to take legisla- tive actions that earn them the title of “corporate-friendly” in order to protect their own district constituency from facing higher rates of unemployment.

In short, the combined power of the rich, their control over much of the media, and their ability to move capital at will means that passing a limited amendment like the one pro- posed by Move to Amend would require a huge expenditure of time, energy, and money. And since the framing of the is- sues is so limited, it does not raise consciousness about these other important ways in which the rich and their corpora- tions would continue to shape American political life. Since the education that the campaign accomplishes would be so very narrowly focused, it would not change the most funda- mental aspects of what undermines our democracy.

But waging such a campaign takes enormous amounts of work and money. Once in a generation such a campaign can be waged. This is why I’m not convinced by my comrade

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and friend Peter Gabel, the editor-at-large of Tikkun, who argues that overturning Citizens United is valuable, even if it only puts us back to the legal situation of 2010, “because the politics of overturning it at the existential level is very important in mobilizing people’s resistance to the right-wing turn.” Gabel argues that I understate “the importance of the anti–Citizens United movement from an existential politi- cal standpoint while making a very important mind-opening argument for ESRA as what we really need.”

My answer to that is that making a struggle for a consti- tutional amendment will take a great deal of resources and energy and may fail, like the ERA did in the 1980s. We don’t just get to “whack” the Supreme Court—we have to mobilize tens of millions of our fellow citizens. That means a decade of work, after which, win or lose, very few people are going to feel the energy to take the next step. So the main impact of such a struggle, the only sure outcome, is to raise the public’s consciousness about a new view of what our society could look like. That is why I think that a movement for a more visionary and far-reaching amendment such as the ESRA (the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment) could have a more far-reaching impact than the more limited struggle to overturn Citizens United.

The attraction of a quick win for a liberal political position by staying away from a larger ideology and focusing on “what can win” has proved very destructive in the Obama years, and in any event is unlikely to be applicable in this case, where a fast win is a fantasy, even for the narrower Move to Amend focus. The ESRA would revoke the rights recently given to corporations by the Supreme Court, but it also goes beyond that to present changes that would be substantive if won, and consciousness-changing if not won.

Overturning Citizens United will not stop the super-rich from distorting the democratic process. Only the ESRA can do that.

What Will Work? The ESRA!

Here’s what the ESRA says: Corporations are not persons, money is not a protected form of speech, and the rights granted in the Constitution do not apply to corporations. Congress and the states must fully fund all elections and no other source of funding direct or indirect is permitted. No private or corporate money may be used to attempt to influ- ence the outcome of an election for any ballot initiatives or for any federal or state elections. Major media must provide free and equal time for all major candidates (those who have 5 percent in public opinion polls in the relevant electoral dis- trict in which they are running) sufficient to allow the public to understand the issues. Media must not provide additional time to any candidate, party, or political position without granting equal time to opposing candidates and positions. Every corporation with incomes of over $100 million a year must get a new corporate charter once every five years, which will only be granted to corporations that can prove a satis- factory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens chosen at random. That jury will hear testimony from representatives of all the constituencies both nationally and globally whose lives have been impacted by that corporation.

The ESRA goes on to say that no corporation may move its operation or its assets outside the United States without first paying compensatory damage to all those communities and individuals impacted negatively by such a move. And all educational institutions must provide mandatory courses at each grade level from kindergarten through graduate and professional schools to help develop the skills—including cooperation and caring for others—needed to face potential

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environmental dangers to the earth, and to foster solidarity among the citizens of the United States and between U.S. residents and the rest of the earth’s inhabitants. This educa- tion must also seek to cultivate a recognition of our shared responsibility to protect the earth, air, water, and food sup- plies. Any part or section of international treaties or agree- ments or domestic laws or part of the Constitution deemed incompatible with this ESRA are hereby declared null and void. And Congress shall develop national practices, institu- tions, and laws that encourage the development of an ethos of caring for the planet and caring for each other (all human beings on the planet). Individuals shall be allowed to sue in Federal Courts to ensure that such laws are passed.

The ESRA is no less likely to pass the constitutional require- ments for a new amendment to the Constitution than the far more limited focus of the Move to Amend. But the campaign for the ESRA is far more likely to have a fundamental and transformative impact on all those who enter into conversation about its vision of what is most badly needed in America. Just imagining an America with these provisions will allow people to think beyond the present boundaries of “political realism” and make them more open to candidates at the state and na- tional level who think in these terms and endorse the ESRA.

Until something like the ESRA is passed, every partial environmental, social justice, or human rights campaign or candidate serious about these issues risks being defeated outright by big money or subverted by legislators who feel the need to be responsive to the needs of those who fund them. Democrats make half-hearted efforts to achieve some of these goals, but meanwhile the destruction of the planet and the intensification of power in the hands of the 1 percent and their legions of employees are continuing year by year.

What You Can Do

It’s reasonable to have many questions about the ESRA. I urge you to go to and read the full version of our proposed amendment and the Q&A we’ve developed there. And send me your additional questions once you’ve read through the amendment and the Q&A.

If you like this idea, then please let me know if you could help create a Money Out of Politics campaign (of whatever size, no matter how small) by getting people to discuss and endorse the ESRA in your area of the country, your profes- sional group or union, your religious community or political party, your civic organization, or your educational institution.

We will not oppose the smaller amendment in the public arena. But with our friends on the Left we will try in public de- bate to expand their campaign and convince Move to Amend to adopt the broader ESRA rather than devote so much en- ergy and money to a campaign for a more limited amendment that won’t fix the problem or dramatically reshape public con- sciousness. At the very least, we hope they will use their cam- paign to educate people about the broader vision of the ESRA, even as they push for the passage of a narrower amendment. So if you are ready to help financially, politically, or creatively in any way, join the Network of Spiritual Progressives at spiri- and contact me to tell me what part of the campaign you are willing to make happen in your area! My email: [email protected]

DMU Timestamp: November 27, 2019 01:26

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