What if 'Citizens United' Actually United the Citizens?

After a long, dark period of stagnant progressive momentum and pay-to-play politics, this week saw a flurry of progressive victories that could upset the conventional wisdom about a post-Citizens United world.

After a long, dark period of stagnant progressive momentum and pay-to-play politics, this week saw a flurry of progressive victories that could upset the conventional wisdom about a post-Citizens United world.

This morning's announcement by Harry Reid that the Senate is postponing the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) vote would have been almost unimaginable as recently as a week ago, when PIPA and its House counterpart, SOPA (the Stop On-line Piracy Act), were considered done deals. Only a handful of disgruntled geeks stood in the way of an industry power grab that would have blessed online censorship and stifled innovation. But the bills' promoters failed to anticipate the power of "Blackout Wednesday" to popularize the outrage. Suddenly, it wasn't just geeks. Congress started fielding calls from people unable to sell couches on Craigslist and harried parents of students desperate to consult Wikipedia for school papers. Thus sounded the death knell for the bills.

While the tactical decision to pull down popular sites in protest of these bills were tailored to the Internet blackout bills, the other two major victories this week--the rejection of the massive Keystone oil pipeline and the submission of 1.9 million signatures to recall union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker--were also made possible by fusing old-school community organizing with innovative netroots strategies.

Going into the week, news was dominated by the proliferation of political ads in early primary states, many of which would have been illegal prior to Citizens United. There is no denying that decision's impact, on almost every issue: spending legalized by the Citizens United decision was partly responsible for the Walker victory in 2010, and moving forward Citizens United-enabled ads will be full of messages about Obama's rejection of Keystone. Progressives have continually highlighted the ruling as a low point in a campaign world that comes with a multimillion-dollar entry fee. It's true that experts warn that the proliferation of ads could result in voter disengagement.

But what if the net result of Citizens United is a realization by progressive groups that financial competition is futile, one that prompts altered strategies that play to progressive strengths? In the two years after the Citizens United decision, we've seen a renewed commitment to deep organizing and innovative rapid response that is threatening corporate-backed electeds and industry-promoted legislation alike.

Take the Internet censorship bills: the smug overreach of these industry-backed bills united both poles of the political spectrum and new media companies in an unprecedented wave of online activism that turned the tide and left both bills gasping for life on the eve of their vote. Google, a leading industry opponent, launched its first ever online petition, a move that netted it a staggering 7 million signatures. Websites as far-ranging as Wikipedia and I Can Haz Cheezburger? went dark on Wednesday to protest the infringement on their rights. Users expecting to laugh at cats instead learned of the imminent threat, and these collective actions popularized the outrage.

The same day, the president announced his decision to comply with a State Department recommendation to reject the Keystone Pipeline. The pipeline--replete with catastrophic climate impacts and powerless to deliver the jobs its promoters promised--was all but signed when a small band of committed climate activists mounted a week of direct action at the White House last summer. As the civil disobedience peaked, groups quickly followed up with sustained organizing of Obama volunteers and donors, who publicly committed to withhold re-election support if the pipeline was approved. In the final tally, there were over 1000 arrests, more than one million petition signatures and public statements flooded the White House, and close to 40,000 calls were made to Congress opposing the pipeline in one day.

And finally, on Tuesday of this week, a Wisconsin effort announced it had submitted 1.9 million signatures to recall corporate darling Governor Scott Walker--more than three times the number required to get the recall on the ballot. The Wisconsin recall effort is a similar story of block-by-block organizing coordinated with savvy online work that solidified new alliances and resulted in close to half of eligible Wisconsin voters asking for the chance to recall Walker. Walker won just over a year ago with 52.3 percent of the vote in the most expensive race in the state's history. A whopping $37.4 million dollars were spent in that election on television advertising. And yet a committed grassroots operation not only could reverse that decision but has a nervous state government so committed to accountability in the recall proceedings, they are using a webcam to give voters access to every move they make in counting the signatures.

Now, no one is arguing money doesn't matter and political ads are on their way out. Already, $12 million have been spent on ads in the lead up to the South Carolina primary. That's an estimated 25,000 ads in the span of a few weeks for a state with a total population of 4.5 million. This mirrors the Iowa caucus, where people complained of being hit from every angle with political ads. These primaries follow a 2010 election cycle that tested the new Citizens United ruling allowing unlimited spending by outside parties on behalf of a candidate in political races. The undeniable result of Citizens United has been more ads, by less identifiable players, with a much uglier tone. It should be overturned.

What we do know, though, is that the ads make most Americans crave more limits on election spending. A new CBS poll out yesterday showed majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents favor limits on how much both how much individuals can give to candidates and how much outside groups can spend on ads. A total of 67 percent of respondents said outside spending should be limited, while less than a third favored the current system. A different poll shows that two-thirds of small-business owners believe the Citizens United decision hurts their interests.

What's now also coming into focus is that the influx of such huge sums of money has forced smaller groups to re-evaluate their own reliance on a saturated media market to deliver a message, and catalyzed new investment in breakthrough organizing. The popular momentum we saw this week behind such campaigns may well be evidence that instead of disengaging in a post-Citizens United world, voters jump at concrete opportunities to flex their power. While I won't claim a triumph for people-powered movements quite yet, the last week has been a great indicator that frustration is turning to action in ways that could yet prove game-changing.

You can access all of The Nation's coverage of Citizens United by clicking here.

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