Mike McCabe leads the fight against the influx of unlimited corporate donations by Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Are you feeling as if there's nothing you can do to fight back against the Citizens United ruling that has only intensified an already insane approach to financing political campaigns? Think again. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign offers us a shining example of the grass roots organizing needed today to track campaign money in politics, fight government corruption and work for reforms that make people matter more than money. Their newest initiative is Ending Wealthfare As We Know It.
Executive Director Mike McCabe talked recently about the continued need for campaign finance reform, the impact of Citizens United on his state and the nation, and most importantly, what we as individuals can continue to do. More on the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign can be found at their website http://www.wisdc.org.
Q. With the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, corporate donations to political campaigns have taken on a whole new dimension. How has this decision impacted your organization's efforts?
When people think of the Citizens United decision, they think of the Supreme Court opening the floodgates to even more money from corporations and other wealthy interests in our elections. That's true enough. But another of the ruling's equally profound impacts is that it significantly diminished disclosure of political money. It enables corporate cash to be funneled through groups that are able to keep the public in the dark about the true origins of the money. That has made it more difficult to follow the money, and has forced groups like ours to invest even more time and energy into the effort to expose where the money is coming from and how it is moving.
Citizens United also has made it necessary for reform advocates to go back to the drawing board and come up with new approaches to campaign finance reform. The kinds of laws Wisconsin and other states enacted in the 1970s and 1980s have been rendered obsolete by the courts. Even more recent reforms have to be refashioned because of how the Supreme Court has radically reinterpreted the First Amendment. Our group has put forward a new plan called "Ending Wealthfare" (www.wisdc.org/endingwealthfare.php) that breaks new ground. It is in direct response to the Citizens United decision and aims to replace the big-money plutocracy we have now with a small-dollar democracy.
Q. The huge influence of big money on political campaigns is such an over-arching issue that impacts almost every other issue today. Are organizations "connecting the dots" on how financial contributions are affecting so much of our lives?
Groups working for social and economic justice have for the most part been getting their heads handed to them in the public policy arena, and the reason is the legal bribery in our political system today and the wealthfare system that is the direct byproduct. Corporations pour huge sums of money into elections. Workers and consumers don't. Polluters are big political givers, conservationists and environmentalists aren't. The insurance industry and the pharmaceutical companies and health care conglomerates are actively buying politicians. Your average patient isn't. The big donors get rewarded. Everyone else pays. Some progressive groups get it, and a great many don't. Or if they do, they sure don't show it. They don't act like they get it. They are terribly foolish not to. They are slitting their own throats.
Q. What is the affect of Citizens United on Wisconsin's state senate recall elections?
Ungodly sums of money will be spent in these races, and most of it by interest groups and party fronts, not by the candidates. The candidates will be limited in what they can raise for their campaigns, and they will have to disclose everything. The outside groups will be able to spend unlimited amounts, and the origins of most of that money will be kept secret. The candidates will be bystanders in their own elections. Outside interest groups will do almost all of the talking. This is the practical effect of Citizens United on elections.
Q. Is there hope that more transparency can be built into campaign finance?
There is always hope. We have entered a new Gilded Age. The last time wealth and political power was concentrated in so few hands, it inspired a progressive movement that banned corporate campaign contributions and election spending, took politics out of the back rooms and gave power to the people through election reforms, all of which led to things like workers compensation, unemployment compensation and the progressive income tax. And set the stage for the New Deal, the creation of Social Security and so much more. What we are living through now will provoke a similar popular uprising. I don't have a good enough crystal ball to know when, but once we sufficiently expose and ultimately criminalize today's legal bribery and do away with the resulting wealthfare benefits, that's when we will get single-payer health care reform. That's when we will see a serious effort to break our addiction to fossil fuels, build a new green economy and arrest global climate change. That's when promoting the common good will become less uncommon.
Q. Can you talk a bit about the drive to amend the Constitution as it relates to corporations and money in financial campaigns?
Citizens United will not stand the test of time. The U.S. Supreme Court once ruled in the Dred Scott case that people can be property. In Citizens United the court ruled that property can be a person and that property has even greater free speech rights than living, breathing, flesh-and-blood persons. They effectively took the "r" out of free speech. They aim to make speech no longer a right but rather a privilege that has to be purchased at great expense. They will fail in the long run. Citizens United will one day go the way of Dred Scott. It will happen in one of two ways -- either through an eventual change in the makeup of the Supreme Court, with the new majority overturning the Roberts court, or by constitutional amendment. Amending the constitution is devilishly difficult, as it should be. But it has been done 27 times before, and it can be done again.
Q. What's your best advice when people ask you, "But what can I do in the face of all of this?"
You can exercise all five rights granted to all of us by the First Amendment. Those rights are worth a thimble full of spit unless they are used. So you can speak up. Enemies of democracy are seeking to commercialize speech and make political participation prohibitively expensive for all but a few, making it more important than ever for us to be creative and find ways to make our voices heard. [IMG21]]
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