More than a decade ago, former Senator Russ Feingold described US politics as a system of ‘legalized extortion and legalized bribery’. Running for federal office is so expensive that politicians invariably grow beholden to the millionaires and corporate interests that so kindly fill their campaign coffers.
Feingold’s assessment came before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, which enshrined spending limitless sums of money as a form of free speech. That decision struck down a century of precedents that enabled the government to impose restrictions, albeit modest ones, on the wanton buying of elections.
Most recently, fossil-fuel magnates Charles and David Koch – the brotherly duo struggling to paint the world’s climate scientists as a cadre of progress-hating conspirators – announced that they will lead a group of arch-conservative donors in spending $889 million on the 2016 election cycle.
All this gets depressing. One might ask: can we even envision a path toward ending the corporate rule over American democracy?
To answer this, I spoke with a friend, Kai Newkirk, who is a leader in 99 Rise, a grassroots organization devoted to using nonviolent direct action to end the corruption of big money in politics.
On 26 February 2014, as the Supreme Court was set to issue a ruling to extend Citizens United, Newkirk interrupted the proceedings, stating: ‘I rise on behalf of the vast majority of the American people, who believe that money is not speech, corporations are not people, and our democracy should not be for sale to the highest bidder.’
Only by keeping his statement succinct could he finish before being roughly dragged away by a burly court police officer.
News cameras are prohibited inside the Supreme Court. However, the protest was surreptitiously filmed, and the rare footage became a social media sensation.
This January, on the fifth anniversary of Citizens United, seven other 99 Rise members stood in succession to voice their dissent to the Court. Each of them was tackled and removed as they asserted the principle of ‘one person, one vote’.
Outside of these actions, 99 Rise has worked to build chapters across the US. In California, its members completed a 770-kilometre march from Los Angeles to Sacramento, ending with a 12-day occupation on the state capitol grounds. That mobilization helped to propel the passage of two campaign finance bills. One called for a convention of states to propose a Constitutional Amendment overturning Citizens United.
Changing the US Constitution to restore the integrity of our elections has clear symbolic resonance. But it’s hellishly difficult to accomplish.
Newkirk stressed that there are important victories that can build toward this goal. Disclosure laws would address the problem of ‘dark money’ by requiring that donor organizations publicly identify the corporations and wealthy individuals who fund them. ‘Dark money is like money laundering in the political system,’ Newkirk explains. ‘Ending that is significant because a lot of corporations are worried about brand image and don’t want to do major political spending openly.’
Another step would be securing public financing for elections. A ‘democracy voucher’ system would give a tax credit to every voter so that they could direct a small amount –perhaps $50 or $100 – to the candidates of their choosing. While this would not eliminate the disproportionate influence of the wealthy, it would lessen it by bringing more small contributions into play.
More important than these specific measures, Newkirk argues, is the willingness of Americans to convert their passive dissatisfaction into active revolt.
‘What gives me hope is that I believe in the capacity of popular movements to open up possibilities where they didn’t exist before,’ he says. ‘Our movement is just coming to a place where we’re using more creative and dynamic civil resistance. If that takes off, I think the calculations of Washington insiders about the possibilities of change can be upset quickly.’