We Need to Make Campaign Finance a Civil Rights Issue

Every American citizen deserves an equal voice, the right to know who is influencing his representatives, and an end to corporate political contributions that work against a fair and inclusive society.
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In his final State of the Union address in 1944, recognizing that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had proven "inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness," President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on Congress to implement a "Second Bill of Rights," an "economic bill of rights."

FDR's concerns then were specifically five-fold, and he hoped that this Second Bill of Rights would guarantee (1) a job with a living wage, (2) homeownership, (3) medical care, (4) education and, notably, (5) freedom from unfair competition and monopolies (read "business practices"). Over the course of the ensuing decades, we made great strides toward achieving these goals, which coincided with a prolonged balanced expansion of the economy.

However, today, the quality of life for our workers has taken major steps backwards. More than 28 million workers are now unemployed in real terms. Those who are working face an unprecedented level of income inequality, 90 percent of workers have had stagnant wages in real terms since 1967, and fewer and fewer employers offer pensions and quality medical insurance.

This move back to the past is largely due to the courts' interpretation of the first Bill of Rights. Through Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, American Tradition Partnership v. State of Montana and SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission, our judicial system has determined that unlimited campaign spending is "freedom of speech." Our electoral process is now captive to massive anonymous contributions from big businesses and extremely wealthy individuals to candidates from whom they obviously expect some sort of fealty if elected. (As an aside, while the same rulings have also given unions the right to spend freely, they are outmatched by large corporations and the likes of the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, by several factors.)

Much of the scorn for this current situation has been rightfully pinned to Citizens United; however, it's actually SpeechNow that has been most destructive. This is the decision that birthed both "Super PACs," which are explicitly political organizations that can accept unlimited contributions from corporations or individuals but must disclose donors, and "tax-exempt organizations," which can accept unlimited contributions and are not subject to disclosure requirements.

The result of all of these decisions is that massive corporations are now pouring tens of millions of dollars into tax-exempt and anonymous trade groups to influence the outcome of federal elections. And while none of the large corporations that now dominate American elections are outwardly anti-civil rights or anti-civil liberties, they support candidates who absolutely are. Indisputably, these big business contributions, while advancing their companies' own corporate and management agendas, are directly enabling closed voting booths, insensitive immigration policies, continued attacks on reproductive rights for women, and blatant union busting.

Unfortunately, the potential payoff for these corporations and individuals is simply too great for this current Congress, the SEC and aggrieved shareholders to sufficiently rein in corporate political contributions and their undue influence. In fact, Congress and the courts, which are the very institutions that are supposed to protect us from oligarchy, are now mostly enabling it.

Thus, we now need to add to FDR's list the civil right of all Americans to fair elections, with limits on large anonymous contributions. Every American citizen deserves an equal voice, the right to know who is influencing his representatives, and an end to corporate political contributions that work against a fair and inclusive society.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s showed us the impact we can have on corporations through boycotts. There is no "freedom to spend anonymously" in the Constitution; corporations need to disclose in detail their contributions and then be put under the spotlight. People from the left and the right should agree upon that.

And once we know which companies are donating, and to whom, we should demand action. Companies are not just backing candidates to further their agendas -- they are backing candidates who are obviously anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-women, and anti-union. We have the right to know if we are supporting hate when we go buy a light bulb or a chicken sandwich, and we always have the right to protest and boycott.

We as a nation need to again have a government that represents all of America -- including the working class, small business owners, students and retirees -- rather than one that is controlled by the wealthiest individuals and largest corporations. Our civil liberties are being recast by those who are little more than prejudicially elected handmaidens of those who have become the oligarchs of America.

If we cannot stop this unrestrained spending through legislative action, which seems unlikely, then we need to at least ensure that strong disclosure laws are in place to guarantee transparency and begin the process of re-establishing our electoral rights. To restore balance to our democracy, we now almost have no choice but to recognize -- in terms of our civil rights -- the implications of what the courts have done and what Congress refuses to do.

Leo Hindery, Jr. is chair of the US Economy/Smart Globalization Initiative at the New America Foundation, co-chair (with USW President Leo Gerard) of the Task Force on Jobs Creation, founder of Jobs First 2012, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the former CEO of AT&T Broadband and its predecessors, Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) and Liberty Media, and is currently a private equity investor in media companies.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the corrupting influence of money on our politics August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

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