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The Dinosaur Economy vs. People-Powered Democracy

The Supreme Court’s disastrous ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, just two years old, is suddenly back on the docket with a slight chance (though it’s far from likely) of a do-over. Also returning to the scene of the crime yesterday for a “flash rally” were a number of the organizations that turned out citizens by the thousands nationwide on the decision’s 2-year anniversary just a month ago, demanding a constitutional amendment to take back free and fair elections for We the People.

Both the context and the stakes epitomize the reasons why the story of Citizens United is also the Story of Broke— and the story of the stark choice between a corrupted political system that props up a “dinosaur economy” no longer serving our needs, and the path toward a sustainable and truly people-powered democratic future.

The judicial fight over Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act of 1912 is a fitting battleground. Banning corporate political expenditures and contributions not made through a regulated political-action committee, the law was a direct response to the “Copper Kings,” mining interests that came to gradually control and corrupt the state’s politics (eventually outright buying a U.S. Senate seat).

The secretive group that sees Citizens United as dictating the end of this century-old protection and protecting its “rights,” despite evidence of the path to corruption that swayed the Montana Supreme Court to find otherwise, is a fitting heir to the Gilded Age’s influence-buying extractors of natural resources. American Tradition Partnership not only opposes most environmental regulations through its campaign spending and lobbying, but advertises to donors that “no politician, no bureaucrat, and no radical environmentalist will ever know you helped make this program possible.”

Not all corporations and business people feel that turning elections into an auction (complete with secret bidders for influence is a good idea of course—in fact the opposite is true. A recent poll found that two-thirds of small business owners think the Citizens United ruling had a negative impact on them. And the Committee on Economic Development, the business group that helped bring about the Marshall Plan, observes that our Citizens-United-enhanced system of campaign finance amounts to a form of “rent seeking” that benefits only narrow short-term concerns (and the lobbyists and campaign consultants paid to ensure they dominate our politics).

According to a recent Pew poll, 77 percent of Americans agree that too much power is in the hands of the wealthiest among us and large corporations.  The success of the Occupy movement in putting that focus back into the national political discourse speaks to that deep-seated frustration. As former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich aptly puts it, the defining issue of this populist moment is not the size of government, but who exactly it stands for.

Simply put, there is growing recognition that a system allowing for multinational corporations and the super-rich to drown out the voices of others, and ensure unequal access to and leverage over elected officials, undermines the First Amendment’s core purpose of a flourishing marketplace of democratic ideas. And as a result, the “dinosaur economy” that has so deeply failed and bankrupted us nevertheless continues to be fed and enabled by “our” political leaders and tax dollars.

That’s why the 2-year anniversary Citizens United was truly a “movement moment.”  Citizens were unified in rallying their communities behind the need for a constitutional amendment to turn the tide and rein in excessive, short-sighted corporate influence over the political process, with over 350 actions nationwide.

The Supreme Court has a chance to start undoing some of this damage if it takes the Montana case and hears out the argument that its pronouncements are profoundly incorrect and not really in alignment with the Constitution as it stands. But in the likelihood that it is still not ready to fully face the facts, it remains incumbent on the rest of us to continue the drive for a constitutional amendment firmly establishing that democracy is for people.

Sean Siperstein is a Legal Fellow with Public Citizen’s Democracy is For People campaign. Follow the campaign on Twitter @RuleByUs for the latest on the money and politics and the campaign for a constitutional amendment!