Netroots Activists Target Corporate Campaigns

By Jim Cullen

Minneapolis, Minn.

Considering that the White House and the US Senate are at least nominally in Democratic hands, one would think that progressive activists might be in a celebratory mood at the Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis June 16-18.

But with topics such as Citizens United and the corporate front groups that are corrupting democracy, the war on women’s health, the corporate tilt of the Roberts Supreme Court, unfair trade deals sending manufacturing jobs overseas and the continuing struggle to implement health care reform while Republicans are sworn to dismantle it, among the more than 50 discussion sessions at the Minneapolis Convention Center, the 2,400 progressive activists in attendance mainly focused on what’s going wrong and how to get it back on the right track.

At a session on the impact of the Citizens United decision, John Nichols, associate editor of the Madison Capital Times and national correspondent for The Nation, called the Supreme Court ruling that corporations are entitled to First Amendment rights “the greatest threat to our democracy,” threatening to overwhelm the political debate with a tsunami of corporate cash. He called for a constitutional amendment overturning it. “I hear people saying in 2012 we’re going to see $2 billion spent, but that’s just on the presidential race,” he said. “It will be at least $8 billion to $10 billion [spent] at every level of our government.”

“There is no reform that will counter Citizens United short of a constitutional amendment,” he added. As a bonus, the movement to promote the constitutional amendment would help to unite progressives.

“Since 1973 the Right to Life movement has been promoting a constitutional amendment overturning Roe vs. Wade and they’ve shown that you don’t have to win on the constitutional amendment. They’ve won our politics. I don’t necessarily need the amendment but I need the movement.”

Groups that are already working on an amendment overturning Citizens United include Move to Amend and Free Speech for People, Nichols noted.

Nichols also encouraged the movement to seek allies in the Tea Party and other conservative groups that are at least nominally populist. “We have to come from every direction to our goal,” he said. “Free speech belongs to the people, not to the corporations.”

Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, said that for a long time the right has been attacking private unions and now they’re turning their attention to public unions. “We’ve got to get on the same message,” he said. “This is a class war and it’s just that our class hasn’t been fighting and theirs has.”

“Change comes when working people, students and other people who are deprived of their rights say enough is enough and we’re going to take our democracy back.”

He also noted that Republicans have made it a priority to make it harder for people to vote, by requiring them to show government-issued photo IDs that many students, minorities and retired people disproportionately lack. “In what other democracy does a major credible party work at every level to make it harder for people to vote?” he asked.

Nichols noted that broadcasters are the #1 opponents of campaign finance reform, because they are the primary beneficiaries of the current system. “At the same time they give less coverage; we’ve lost 30,000 journalists in the United States in the last five years. As a result, the corporate media covers presidential politics but ignores local and state political races. In Illinois, that resulted in a person being nominated for lieutenant governor who had a record for beating his wife and financial irregularities, because he had $2 million to run ads.”

“I care about politics at the local county and state level. We need to worry about the downballot races. That’s where the big money goes.”

Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), co-author of the campaign finance law that the Supreme Court carved a giant exception into, said Citizens United was “a completely activist decision.” He added, “We’re at the fork of two paths: The complete destruction of campaign finance regulation or it could be a wakeup call. I hope I don’t exaggerate when I say that the future of our democracy depends on it.”

Progressives in the early 20th century knew if corporations could use their treasury in political races it would be the end of democracy. In 1907, the Tillman Act prohibited the use of funds from general treasury for political campaigns. Forty-one years later the Taft Hartley Act extended that ban to union general funds.

Feingold noted that the legacy of “soft money” influence on both parties is legislation such as the Telecom Act of 1996 — “one of the most corrupt acts in history,” Feingold called it; the bankruptcy bill that crushed consumers’ opportunity to get out of debt; the repeal of the Glass Steagall Act which resulted in the economic collapse; and the irresponsible tax and budget policies of the past decade, as well as job-killing trade agreements and the failure to adequately re-regulate Wall Street.

After the 2008 election, Feingold said, the monied interests were fuming that Barack Obama managed to raise money through the Internet, without relying on the usual Big Money interests.

“The corporate funded right wing elements of the country were rocked by the power of the Internet ... corporate power in this country saw the face of democracy and they were terrified.”

The Citizens United decision was an attempt to retake the advantage.

Unless we put the brakes on money in politics, he said, “our nation will return to the Gilded Age — but it will be the Gilded Age on steroids.”

First, he said, President Obama should issue an executive order prohibiting government contractors from getting involved in political campaigns. Also, he said, Congress should pass the DISCLOSE Act, which at least would require corporations to disclose their political expenditures. He noted that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate Republican leader, said after the Citizens United decision “all we needed was disclosure.” Then, when the DISCLOSE Act reached the Senate floor, McConnell and other Republicans killed it with a filibuster.

Feingold, who was defeated in 2010 by a self-financing businessman who spent $9 million on the race, does not think Democrats should set up their own “Super PACs” in an attempt to battle the right-wing PACs that support Republican candidates. “I fear the Democratic Party is in danger of losing its identity. Democrats are organizing their own Super PAC and I think that’s wrong. I think it’s a dumb strategy because people will see us as corporate lite.”

In a session on “The Corporate Court: Your Rights vs. Corporate Interests,” Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, spoke of the right’s successful effort since the 1970s to make it increasingly difficult for consumers and workers, civil rights claimants and environmentalists to get their day in court. The corporate takeover of the Supreme Court started with a memo Lewis Powell, who was then an attorney, who wrote for the US Chamber of Commerce in August 1971 that “the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change.” He called for corporate America to become more aggressive in molding politics and law in the US. He also advocated “constant surveillance” of textbooks, press and TV content as well as campus activities.

Since then Republican presidents have loaded the courts with right wingers groomed by the Federalist Society. Aron noted that long-term investment bore fruit in the last year as the Chamber of Commerce won in 13 of 16 cases in which it filed briefs. The Roberts court also has been accepting more business cases for review. While the court grants review of less than 2% of cases appealed to it, she noted, in recent years, it has granted review to more than 25% of cases submitted by the Chamber of Commerce.

The corporate influence doesn’t just show itself in the cases, she noted.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas attended a political strategy and fundraising conference hosted by the Koch Brothers. Samuel Alito spoke to a conference sponsored by the right-wing American Spectator magazine and the Heritage Foundation. Ginnie Thomas, wife of the Supreme Court justice, worked for six years to block health care reform and Aron noted that Justice Thomas failed to disclose that his wife was engaged and earned a salary from these activities. “These justices don’t pretend anymore and they can get away with it because the Code of Conduct which governs the behavior of judges at the district and circuit court level does not apply to them,” she said.

Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club, said the Supreme Court applied the intellectual logic of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass to develop a strange new math to justify the Citizens United decision:

If money equals speech, as the Court held, then speech equals money.

But Pope noted that money does not equal money, since a donation to a member of Congress is not considered bribery.

However, a corporate charter is a person, the Court ruled. Corporations are allowed to commit crimes that ordinary people are not allowed to do and they are not liable for debts, unlike individuals.

The Court also had to say that 1783 equals 1886. To come up with the legal ruling that, for purposes of campaign contributions, corporations are persons, this Supreme Court had to take the concept of “originalism,” which says that the Constitution is supposed to be what it meant in 1783, and twisted it to what a law clerk said it meant in 1886.

The clerk, who happened to be a former railroad executive, wrote in a headnote to a decision on the taxation of railroad properties in Santa Clara County, Calif., that the court considered the corporation a person that could not be denied equal protection of the law under the 14th Amendment — although the court neither heard arguments nor voted on that point. “Now, in 1783 African Americans were not people for purposes of the Constitution. In 1783 women were not full citizens for purposes of the Constitution,”?Pope said. And I can assure you that in 1783 corporations were not persons.”

“There is another mathematical syllogism. Money does equal power and power does equal money. That mathematical syllogism hasn’t changed since 1783 and the Founding Fathers were aware of that. They designed the constitution to limit the role of money to exercise power over the elected officials that represent the people.”

Since money equals power, and money equals speech, and speech is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Roberts Court blessed the proposition that the United States Constitution provides absolute protection for power. “It is power that they worship. They actually don’t worship the corporate charter. If we somehow could find a way to turn the corporate charter into a democratizing tool ... corporations would no longer be people ... the courts would find some other math.”

If the gateway to the court is blocked, Dahlia Lithwick of said, everything else progressives do is useless, and the Roberts Court appears hell-bent on closing the courthouse doors to plaintiffs. In the view of the conservative jurists, she said, “Every plaintiff attorney is greedy, every plaintiff’s complaint is trivial and every lawsuit is frivolous.”

The court has restricted standing to file lawsuits, limited liability, enforced mandatory arbitration clauses, nipped discovery rules, shortened the statute of limitations and made it harder to qualify for class actions to make it substantially harder for plaintiffs to succeed against corporations.

Progressives need to mobilize on the idea that the judiciary is the single most important issue in the 2012 presidential election, she said.

Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) spoke of the “creepy encroachment of corporate influence” that the Citizens United ruling threatens to worsen. He noted that Obama and McCain spent $1 billion in 2008 while ExxonMobil made $30.6 billion in profits last year.

He noted that the Founders put the jury in three separate provisions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and considered the jury is the last sanctuary of rights.

“The Founders did not consider corporations to be citizens. They are not mentioned in the Constitution,” he added.

Whitehouse noted that the pressure was intense to stop Tad McConnell, a plaintiffs’ attorney who was nominated by Obama for the District Court in Rhode Island. The Chamber of Commerce made it a “scored” vote, which meant that a vote for McConnell would be a vote against the Chamber, but 11 Republicans let the vote occur because they wanted to stop the politics at the circuit courts.

Lithwick noted that George W. Bush appointed one-third of the federal judiciary. She urged progressives not to cede the fight to the conservatives.

Keynote speaker Van Jones said the fight back has begun. “Not just in Madison ... I guarantee you, people across this country feel the same that you do, in the tens of millions. ... People are ready to stand up again for the best in this country.”

The fighters include the labor movement that has been under such vicious attack, the young people who are graduating into the worst economy since World War II, the homeowners who bailed out the banks but now find the banks want to jack up their credit card rates and pass out foreclosure notices.

“The people fighting against Citizens United will fight. The people fighting against the abuses on Wall Street will fight. The people fighting against the tuition cuts will fight. The African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, women of all colors, lesbians and gays, who are not just fighting the downturn but who are fighting against discrimination, will fight and fight well; this is guaranteed.

“The question is: Will we fight together, or will we fight alone? That’s the question: Can we fight together? Finally, finally can we find a way to fight together?

“We have a common enemy, and we face a common peril. The common threat that we all face is that we have forces now gaining momentum in our country, who are committed to one thing, and one thing only. They are committed to killing the American Dream. That is their agenda: They want to kill the American Dream.”

The American Dream is different from the American Fantasy, where everyone is going to be rich, and will buy a lot of things, and be happy, eh said.

“I’m talking about something much, much deeper than that, something that we had in this country before the commercializers turned it into something else: The American Dream, which is simply the idea that hard work should pay in our country, that you should be able to get up in the morning in America, and if you’re willing to and able to work, walk out your front door, go to a dignified job, put in a good day’s work, and come back home with a paycheck and can feed your family with it and give your children a better life: That’s the American Dream.

“That is what our parents fought for and our grandparents fought for, and we should not let it be taken away from us on our watch. That’s the American Dream.

“And we have dream-killers. We have dream-killers who have a wrecking ball agenda for our country, a wrecking ball for America. ...

“It’s time for the deep patriots to stand up to the cheap patriots,” he said.

See videos of Jones’ and other speeches and discussions at the Netroots conference at Also see and our editorial on page 2.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2011

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