Six Ways Forward to Reform Our Democracy for a Better Food System
We may not see it in the mainstream news, but we surely see the costs to our communities - corporate spending in food and farm politics has detrimental effects on our health, environment, our farmers, and local economies. We know that many of the efforts in the food and farm justice movement run head on into barriers in a political system that has been bought out by big agribusiness and food companies for their own benefit. This brings us to a hard truth - we won’t change the food and farm system until we change our political system.
The good news is that a growing number of different movements are joining together to demand change. More than 120 groups have agreed that pushing for reform policies reflected in a set of Unity Principles will make our democracy (and, as a result, all the organizations’ work) more effective. The priorities outlined in the Principles are seeing some success in practice. And since polls show that a striking majority of Americans think there is too much corporate money and influence in politics, these reform strategies are making headway.
Here are some of the efforts to reform our political system that fair and sustainable food and farm advocates should get behind:
Overturning Citizens United
The 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United opened the floodgates for corporate spending in elections. To challenge Citizens United:
- So far, 16 state governments (plus Washington DC) and 652 local municipalities have passed resolutions challenging corporate personhood and/or calling for an amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision.
- On the federal level, there have already been a handful of constitutional amendments proposed in the 114th Congress regarding campaign spending and restrictions on spending in state ballot initiatives. The majority of U.S. Senators voted to support the amendment last Fall – 54-42, but that wasn’t the 60 votes in favor necessary to overturn a filibuster and advance the measure.
- Two million signatures have been collected calling for an amendment to overturn Citizens United.
Greater Disclosure of Political Spending
Since Citizens United, we have also seen an explosion of outside spending through Super PACs and “dark money” organizations that are not required to disclose their donors.
- A coalition of organizations is calling on the Securities and Exchange Commission to rewrite the rules and require disclosure, while another effort is asking President Obama for an Executive Order to require disclosure from companies who receive federal contract dollars.
- From 2013 to 2014, 13 states improved their disclosure requirements for independent spending.
- In that same time, the number of states that require disclosure of electioneering communications increased from 25 to 31.
Some activists are bypassing the legislative process and targeting companies directly to demand spending disclosure.
- In 2014, shareholders of at least 50 corporations submitted proposals to their respective company asking for reports on political spending, including contributions to trade associations.
- Progress was made with Dow who agreed to more stringent means of accountability, including reporting every organization to which the company gives more than $25,000 per year.
- Monsanto shareholders posted impressive votes in favor of disclosure standards, though the resolution did not pass.
- A 2014 study showed that 50% of targeted firms (90 out of 180) implemented policy change related to political spending as a result shareholder-submitted proposals from 2004 to 2012.
Requiring Shareholder Approval
Some states are even working proactively to the step prior to disclosure: permission.
- At least four states are considering legislation that requires a majority shareholder approval in order for the company to contribute to campaign committees or candidates.
- The Shareholder Protection Act is the federal bill with the same purpose, which has 22 cosponsors in the House and 12 cosponsors in the Senate.
Public Financing and Fair Elections
In addition to damage control in keeping corporate spending in check, we also need strategies that simultaneously empower everyday voters to re-engage in the political process.
The Government by the People Act has been reintroduced in 2015 in the House and currently boasts 144 cosponsors. This bill would invite a more diverse pool of candidates to run for office by reducing the barrier of the “money primary,” give more residents the opportunity to support their candidate of choice by offering a refundable tax credit, and also encourage candidates to re-engage with small donors and forgo Big Money fundraising by offering a public match on small donations.
- After the 2012 elections, 70 percent of then-current Maine State legislative officials won using the Clean Elections system since it began in 2000
- In Connecticut after 2012, 77 percent of State legislative officials who used the Citizen’s Election Program since it was implemented in 2008 were in office.
- In the 2013 New York City Council races, small donors were responsible for 61 percent of the participating candidates’ contributions (once matching funds were factored in), making small donors the largest source of campaign cash. Their big-money opponents got only 19 percent of their contributions from small donors.
Voter turnout for the 2014 elections was the lowest since 1942, likely due to a combination of disillusionment with our corrupt system and a renewed wave of attacks on voting rights since 2010. However:
- 12 states saw improved measures in voting rights for the 2014 elections (despite 29 states introducing 83 restrictive bills).
- The pending Democracy Restoration Act could restore the vote to 4.4 million people upon their release from prison; similar bills are active in three states.
It’s making a difference
Change is happening! Yes, we are up against some heavy hitters. But we’ve got the vast majority of Americans on our side as well as a growing trail of data that demonstrates that these democratic reform strategies are working. In his February keynote introducing a new paper on corruption and democratic reform, U.S. Representative John Sarbanes shared his experience winning his seat through Maryland’s Fair Elections program. He urged us all to keep advocating for these reforms and to push through our apathy, declaring: “I don’t believe the Koch Brothers are more powerful than 300 million people fighting to get their government back.” The movement for food and farm justice can’t be separated from the growing wave of efforts to restore our democracy. Any strides we make in the movement are vulnerable until we successfully wrangle our government from the hands of Big Money and reinstate it back into the hands of the people.