Chicagoans vs. Corporate Campaign Cash

This column originally appeared in the "Chicago Journal."

It's time for real people -- like you and me -- to take back our democracy. Of course, there have always been problems with money and democracy going back 2,500 years when Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle first delineated the differences between oligarchy and democracy.

Oligarchy is the rule of the wealthy. Democracy is the rule of the people. Athenian democracy was taken over by oligarchs before its total collapse.

In America over the last century we have passed many laws to limit the ability of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals to buy elections (and public officials). In doing so, we have tried to promote democracy and limit oligarchy. For most of this period, corporations weren't allowed to contribute to political candidates, campaigns, or parties. Since the post-Watergate reforms of 1972, we have gone further. We've established limits on campaign contributions for presidential campaigns. Since last January, even state and local campaigns in Illinois have had contribution limits.

Then, in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back the clock. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission they ruled that corporations are people. As part of corporations' First Amendment Rights of free speech, they now can spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose political candidates. Following this decision, television and radio have had more irresponsible, negative attack ads, and you have received more robocalls on your home phone. The flood of money into politics will become even more obvious between now and November's election. Elections are for sale to the highest bidder who can best manipulate the voters.

The effort to undo this terrible court decision has come to local petition signing and local government hearings. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin is sponsoring a petition and pushing passage of a disclosure act in congress to force political front groups at the very least to disclose the corporations and billionaires funding them. It doesn't stop the flow of money. But it would allow voters know who is giving it.

Going further, 49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore has a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. There is a hearing on it before the City Council's Committee on Human Relations on Monday, July 23 in City Hall Room 201A at 10 a.m. Anyone who shows up can testify. Show up if you can. Call your alderman to vote for it if you can't.

The resolution calls upon the U.S. Congress "to propose and send to the states for ratification a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The amendment would make clear that the rights protected by the Constitution are rights of natural persons and do not extend to corporations. Ald. Moore's resolution quotes Justice John Paul Stevens writing in the dissent to Citizens United that corporations "are not themselves members of 'We the People' by whom and for whom our Constitution was established."

If it seems farfetched to begin a movement to pass a constitutional amendment here in Chicago, similar resolutions have passed or are in the process of being passed in 288 other cities and towns. They range from Atlanta and Albuquerque down the alphabet to Wilmington, Worcester and Yarmouth. In the age of the Internet, coordinating grassroots efforts is much easier. We in Chicago need to be a part of that process.

The pernicious effects of the Supreme Court decisions are stirring up folks here at the local level. This is an issue that affects Americans of all political stripes. It transcends simple partisanship.

The principle is simple. We can't keep our democracy if elections and public officials can be bought by corporations. Rather, we need the government to set reasonable limits on businesses if capitalism is to work.

Passing disclosure laws in Congress is hard and passing a Constitutional amendment is harder. But if we in the neighborhoods care enough we can keep a government of, by, and for the people.

If we don't act, corporations and the wealthy will be happy to create the best government their money can buy.

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