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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, November 08, 2012

United States of Mammon

In an election cycle when Ayn Rand's philosophy became fashionably chic, it's time to take a long, hard look at the structures and systems of politics.  In a season when billionaires organize foundations, institutes, think-tanks, and SuperPacs around remaking society to be more profitable to their mercantile interests, it's time to catch our breath and think about how we believe we should conduct political campaigns and elections.

And in either case, it will not take long to find the elephant in the room, the swollen sore thumb on the hand, the gaping sinkhole in the city square.  It's called Citizens United.  It's a decision handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States, striking down provisions of the McCain-Feingold legislation that aimed to regulate campaign finance.

Anyone concerned about the plutocratic momentum of US politics realized right away how awful this decision would be for politics.  On the other hand, it could also be called the "subsidies for professional political campaign workers" decision, in that it opened the floodgates of money for anyone who could successfully claim to be a political hack.

As is often the case, some of the most insightful reporting and commentary on current social topics finds its way into the radio program This American Life.  One outstanding episode looks at the role money plays in elections and politics, specifically addressing Citizens United: "Take the Money and Run for Office."  Momentum has been building over the past year to draft a constitutional amendment that would reverse the devastating legal doctrine passed down in Citizens United.

I first started hearing about organized efforts to amend the constitution on a podcast from Planet Money, a blog on the economy over at NPR, which does lots of reporting in cooperation with Morning Addition, All Things Considered, and This American Life.  The episode was titled "A Former Lobbyist Tells All," and it is an interview with Jimmy Williams, former lobbyist for the National Association of Realtors, describing aspects of the money rush for elective office.  Williams is now dedicated to reversing Citizens United through passage of a constitutional amendment.  You can listen to many other Planet Money episodes on money in politics at their site.

Williams's campaign has coalesced with others to form United Republic, with its campaign called Get Money Out!  He tells of many others working on this effort.  Numerous Senators and Representatives have put forth bills to amend the constitution.  There are other coalitions of groups working on this project, such as Amend 2012 (affiliated with Common Cause), Free Speech for People (led by several new media type organizers), and Move to Amend (a broad coalition of the progressive left).

For those of you who can remember your civics classes, you will recall that one way to amend the US Constitution is for three-quarters of the states to demand it.  So far eleven states have taken official action.  California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maryland, New Mexico, and Massachusetts have adopted legislation or written letters of petition to Congress calling for a constitutional amendment.  On Tuesday, Colorado and Montana voters overwhelmingly approved ballot initiatives calling for constitutional amendments.

I've talked generally about what is at stake here, focusing more on the problem and the current organizing work that is going on.  I don't want to give a technical treatise in legalese, but let me hit what I see as the key issues.  First, the doctrine that a corporation is a person has been stretched to idiotic proportions as the courts are applying the constitutionally defined rights of citizens to corporations.  The distinction between a corporation and a human being in relation to the constitution must be clarified.  Second, the doctrine that money is speech has also been allowed to expand beyond logic and steamroll the egalitarian notion that each person should have a voice in public discourse.  Campaign finance limits are a way of letting all citizens, regardless of their wealth, have a proportional measure of freedom to speak out.  Unlimited spending means some have the capacity to drown out the rest.  It takes us back to an old line from Charles Reade (usually misattributed to Dickens): "Well, every one for himself, and Providence for us all--as the elephant said when he danced among the chickens."

To close out the post, let me offer a letter to the editor I wrote in response to a call for action from Free Speech for People.

To the Editors:

Election day has passed, and for many of us it is a relief.  The money spent on electioneering and advertising set new records at all levels of office.  Amounts that would have been inconceivable a few years ago have poured into the election committees, PACs, and SuperPACs.  The massive infusion of dollars from a few wealthy people was made possible by the Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United.  That decision jumbled a few principles of US Constitutional Law and came up with a ludicrous and dangerous conclusion:  if corporations are persons, and if money is speech, and if persons have freedom of speech, and if corporations have lots of money, then corporations and anyone else with money should be free to spend and say as much as they want, true or not, to influence an election.

The decision swept away decades of legal tradition which distinguished between the personhood of human beings and the personhood of corporations in important ways.  It swept away decades of legal tradition which aimed to protect the one person-one vote principle of equality, not only in the voting booth, but also in the use of money to influence an election.  The result of Citizens United on subsequent elections has been to favor plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) rather than democracy (rule by the people).  The battle for truly democratic rather than plutocratic elections is one that bipartisan efforts of John McCain (Rep) and Russ Feingold (Dem) had fought for many years, only to see their hard word overthrown.  94% of elections are won by the candidate who spends the most money.  That's not an election, that's an auction. 

For those of us who prize democracy and long to see it flourish, the best sign of hope on election day came from propositions passed in two Western states.  In Colorado and Montana, voters overwhelmingly approved, with more than 70% of their votes, to call for an amendment to the US Constitution that overturns Citizens United, that knows the difference between a human being with rights and a corporation, and that authorizes governing bodies from federal and state levels to protect equality in election contributions.  These two initiatives join the nine previous states which have passed laws calling for this kind of constitutional amendment.

Now that so much money has been spent to influence the election, we can be sure that the people who wrote the checks will be looking for ways they can cash in on their investments, whether their candidates won or lost this time.  The rest of us need to be busy working for the end of this debacle known as Citizens United.  Thirteen bills for constitutional amendments are already introduced in Congress.  We need to act to save our voices in democracy now.

Dr. Mikael Broadway

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