Do you remember “And for the Sake of the Kids“? It was the motherhood-and-apple pie PAC through which coal company Massey Energy spent $3 million to defeat West Virginia’s incumbent chief justice through grossly misleading attack ads. McGraw’s successor promptly reversed a $50 million jury verdict against Massey for fraud and breach of contract. The power grab was so blatant it inspired a John Grisham novel.
Now that the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has destroyed any federal checks on their actions, the coal industry is planning similarly manipulative campaigns for the 2010 elections. Other right-wing groups are pledging $200-300 million. Because corporate donors can now legally mask their identity, it’s going to be near impossible to hold them accountable for all the ads they fund.
The Congressional Disclose Act is intended as at least a partial antidote, requiring organizations involved in electoral campaigning to reveal the identities of their major donors in their political ads. The act also bars foreign corporations, major government contractors and financial bailout recipients from making political expenditures. It’s a sad statement that every Republican backed a filibuster, hoping to drown the Democrats in unaccountable cash.
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The Democrats currently remain one vote short, and vow to try again. We would hope that the moral arguments would convince Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins or Scott Brown. Or that they would resurrect the John McCain of McCain-Feingold, the bill that Citizens United eviscerated. Democratic negotiators even added burdensome reporting requirements for unions in a vain attempt to get Republican votes. But persuasion or even bending-backward compromise gets little traction with the Party of No. Even those who decried Citizens United, like Snowe, seem more intent on bringing the Democrats down than preventing American democracy from becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Exxon, Massey, BP, Goldman Sachs, and every other corporate interest willing to pay the cost. The alternative is for ordinary citizens to hold the Republicans accountable for further empowering the most destructive corporate interests on the planet. We need to make their party’s support for anonymous attack ads a liability for every one of their candidates, and every officeholder carrying their standard.
This means challenging Republican representatives at town meetings and campaign rallies, rallying and picketing at their offices and those of their corporate backers, protesting with puppets and banners, writing letters to local newspapers, passing city council resolutions, canvassing door to door in ways that reach beyond the choir, canvasses and petition campaigns that reach out beyond the usual online choir, acting in every creative public way we can think of. As with most important efforts, there are no magical solutions, but the more of us who participant in visible public action, the more chance we’ll have of prevailing, both through extracting a political cost and creating the maximum possible chance that at least one Republican senator will switch and support the minimal transparency that the Disclose Act provides.
We obviously have more leverage on senators and representatives running in November, or those, like Snowe and Brown, who are running in 2012 in Democratic-leaning states. But even for those seemingly less vulnerable, we need to make clear how profoundly their actions undermine our democracy. It’s an insult that Wyoming and North Dakota have as much Senate representation as California, and that senators representing 11 percent of the country have the power to block the will of those representing 89 percent, which is why Senate filibuster rules need to be changed at the beginning of next session. But for now, we have to deal with the issue of transparency, and hold those accountable who’d prevent it. Americans are politically distracted, overloaded and amnesiac, but they didn’t like Citizens United, with 80 percent opposing it. So, they should respond to efforts to reverse or ameliorate its damage.
It’s tempting to assume someone else will magically create these efforts. But given the stakes, we need to appoint ourselves to step forward, as so many of us did to carry Obama to office, and then connect with others doing the same. MoveOn is already planning local Fight Washington Corruption rallies throughout the country on August 10 and 11. If enough of us can participate, bring in others and enlist the organizations we work with they could be a powerful beginning step. We’ll then need to find further ways to levy pressure, reach out to the currently uninvolved and make clear the stakes for our democracy. As with every critical issue we face, we can’t just sit back and hope for change from DC.