Louder Than a Dollar

Here’s a number from the November elections: 0.5.

That’s not a victory margin; it’s a measure of how bad things have gotten in our democracy.

During the 2012 election, just one half of one percent of people made up 80 percent of the more than $6 billion in political spending. Worse, a mere 149 donors made up 75 percent of the estimated $1 billion in Super PAC money raised from individuals.

Given these numbers, is it any wonder that sober people such as Bill Moyers and veteran Iowa Republican Jim Leach are using words like oligarchy and plutocracy to describe our system in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision? That decision, made in 2010, equated corporations with human beings in our Constitution, and it ruled that we the people are powerless to protect human political equality and fair elections by regulating election spending—which the 5-4 majority on the Court equated to “free speech.”

But the proper metaphor for money in politics is power—not speech. Power is the reason Monsanto and other corporate giants spent $46 million to smother a GMO-labeling ballot initiative in California. Power is why Chevron contributed $2.5 million to Speaker John Boehner’s Super PAC to hold a majority for climate obstructionists in Congress. And power is why Saudi oil interests used the American Petroleum Institute (and their huge stakes in international corporations, such as News Corporation) to sway various election contests.

No campaign in November was too obscure for this corruption. Chevron deceptively funneled $1.2 million into local city council races in Richmond, California, a community of 100,000 people. One reason: Chevron runs a refinery there, one that has long plagued the community, and one that, following an explosion in August, sent thousands of people to area hospitals. Control of the Richmond city council will be helpful to Chevron.

Despite all this, the November elections offer hope—that word that David Orr defines as “a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” Among other things, Election Day showed the increasing forward velocity of the campaign to reverse Citizens United.

In Montana, for instance, 75 percent of voters endorsed a ballot initiative calling for a 28th Amendment to overturn Citizens United. The policy of Montana is now clear enough: (1) corporations do not have Constitutional rights; (2) unlimited spending in elections corrupts both elections and government and contradicts the political equality of all Americans; and (3) the voters of Montana instruct their elected representatives to work for passage and ratification of the 28th Amendment.

Likewise, in Colorado, voters passed a 28th Amendment resolution by a lopsided margin, making for a total of eleven states that have passed similar resolutions. Nearly five hundred cities and towns have done the same, including seventy-three newly elected members of the House of Representatives and twenty-five Senators returning to Washington. Thousands of business and religious leaders are joining the call for an amendment, too: as Rev. Jim Wallis, the editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, has said, “our national soul is at stake.”

We have a ways to go, of course. This movement is ambitious, and even a few supporters say that this must be a “long-term project,” as if to suggest that we should lower our expectations or focus on smaller-scale reform in the short run.

But that misses the point. We should not think of the 28th Amendment as some far-off, long-term goal, but as the urgent, pressing need that it is. That’s because this campaign is only the beginning, not the end, of what we must do.

All of this has become even clearer to me in the last few days. On December 26, we lost a friend and a hero of mine and of so many others, when Becky Tarbotton, the executive director of Rainforest Action Network, died far too young in a swimming accident. When I last saw Becky in October at RAN’s annual Revel, she gave one of her powerful talks, offering this reminder:

The project of our time is even bigger than climate change. We need to be setting our sights higher and deeper. What we’re really talking about, if we’re honest with ourselves, is transforming everything about the way we live on this planet. We’re talking about re-embedding the economy within the limits of nature.

That’s why overturning Citizens United matters so much. It is not about having the perfect law in the abstract, or even about better, fairer elections. It is about whether or not humanity will have the power—and the chance—for transformation. Let’s resolve to do everything we can, while we can, now.

Jeff Clements is the author of Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It and the co-founder and president of Free Speech for People, a nationwide, nonpartisan organization working to overturn Citizens United and reform corporate law.


  1. Amen, Jeff. Let’s overturn Citizens United…for us, for our democracy, for Becky Tarbotton.

  2. I’d say more simply that, as regards political communication, money is loudness. There’s no first amendment right to deafening (nor even to merely obnoxious) loudness. Obviously, though, it’s hard to make that position heard.

  3. Money is speech?? Well I guess my job is money, my house, everything I own, the forest, water, space, ideas — when you get down to it my world and even myself are money. So what’s left? God? No, I forgot God is money too! Apparently I am living in a Universe where nothing is real or has any other value except money…

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