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The Solution to Citizens United That No One Is Talking About

Could a narrow focus on Citizens United actually set back our drive for democracy?

That's been a real worry of mine, but my thinking has been fussy. So I was relieved to see Matt Bai, the New York Times Magazine's political correspondent, take on the challenge of deciphering what can and cannot be laid at the feet of this awful ruling.

In "How Did Political Money Get This Loud?" Bai suggests that Citizens United mainly "intensified" unintended consequences of earlier reforms. He argues that the burst of political spending in the last two years, while huge, is actually in line with the trajectory of growth in campaign spending since McCain-Feingold reforms in 2002.

He stresses that the biggest consequence of McCain-Feingold and Citizens United may not be the staggering scale of spending, but that "candidates don't really have control of their own campaigns anymore..."

With the passage of McCain-Feingold, Bai explains, "parties could no longer tap an endless stream of soft money [unlimited contributions used in a range of party activities not directly asking for votes]." So they turned to another means: "independent groups with their own turnout and advertising campaigns limited in what they could say," emphasizes Bai, "but accountable to no candidate or party boss..."

Then, Citizens United and related Court decisions wiped out most remaining limits, so "[n]ow any outside group can use corporate money to make a direct case for who deserves your vote and why, and they can do so right up to Election Day." The big outside groups today are "social-welfare groups" (including, believe it or not, Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity) and Super PACs, and the difference between them? Super PACs must disclose donors' identities, but social-welfare groups generally don't.

Many will likely debate Bai's analysis, but my concern is what it misses altogether:
"That there are solutions we can realize at least in part in the foreseeable future."

We can move democracy forward even before a new Supreme Court majority reversing Citizens United or victory in a long battle for a constitutional amendment.

Wonderfully, Americans are united across political divisions in our anger at big money's control of politics. Sixty-seven percent of us favor "voluntary public financing" of elections, already enabling regular citizens to run for the legislature in three states. And two-thirds of Americans also support disclosure of large contributors.

So let's get on with building a bipartisan uprising of voters with the guts to insist that candidates we support in November pledge to back DISCLOSE Act and Fair Elections legislation -- now being refined in Congress -- and that, once in place, they use this system, not private wealth, for their campaigns. (Under the "fair elections" bill, a candidate raises a specific number of small, in-state contributions -- each no bigger than $100 -- to qualify for significant public funds, both a lump sum and five dollars for each small-donor dollar up to a cap.) And let's demand that candidates we support denounce any unaccountable electioneering bodies, whether backing them or other candidates.

Join with the dozens of groups already on board from Public Citizen to Friends of the Earth at and reach out to friends and strangers who've never heard of this option.

Note that the DISCLOSE Act failed last week to achieve the super majority it needed by only nine votes. Nine is an achievable shift this November.

We can't afford to wait for the Supreme Court. We can't afford to wait for a constitutional amendment. Let's focus now on electing a president and a Congress who share the majority's position on these foundational questions. On this path, we begin to reduce the power of concentrated wealth in public decision making as we also build the inclusive citizen pressure necessary to reverse laws and rulings hindering solutions to all our biggest national challenges.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do.

Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of nineteen books, beginning with the acclaimed Diet for a Small Planet. Most recently she is the co-author, with Adam Eichen, of the new book, Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want. Among her numerous previous books are EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want (Nation Books).  She is co-founder of the Cambridge-based Small Planet Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @fmlappe


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