Teddy Roosevelt and His 1910 "New Nationalism" Speech, A Call to Arms Against Corporate Money in Federal Elections

Teddy Roosevelt and His 1910 "New Nationalism" Speech, A Call to Arms Against Corporate Money in Federal Elections
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On Tuesday, President Barack Obama traveled to Osawatomie, Kansas to make a major speech on his economic policies.

According to today's Washington Post, President Obama went to Osawatomie to invoke Teddy Roosevelt and a speech he made there in 1910 that became known as Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" speech. As the Post noted:

The president chose this town of 4,600 in eastern Kansas as a historical echo of a speech delivered a century earlier by Theodore Roosevelt, who used the same location to call for a strong central government that would protect ordinary Americans from what he called the greed and recklessness of big business and special interests. That speech, which became known as "the New Nationalism" speech was one of the early cornerstones of 20th-century progressivism.

There is a critical part of the Roosevelt speech, however, that President Obama did not address in his speech and that is highly relevant today. President Roosevelt in laying down the gauntlet for "progressivism" in his 1910 speech, said:

It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced. Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public-service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs.

For more than a century, the Roosevelt position prevailed in our country. Corporate money was barred from being used in federal elections. Our national policy was based on a simple proposition: only individuals and groups of individuals were allowed to contribute or spend money to influence federal elections.

Then on January 21, 2010, five Supreme Court Justices reached into the sky and pulled out something that had not existed for the past 219 years: a constitutional right for corporations to spend money to influence federal elections.

These five Justices, whose decision will be harshly judged by history, threw out more than a century of national policy established by Congress, tossed out decades of Supreme Court precedents and eviscerated a bulwark of anti-corruption laws in the blink of an eye.

The disastrous consequences of the Citizens United decision, a decision that will not stand the test of time, are now unfolding in our national elections. They include the ability of corporations to spend as much of their trillions of dollars in resources as they want to influence federal elections; a return of large amounts of secret money to federal elections for the first time since the Watergate era; and the creation of Super PACs and candidate-specific Super PACS that can raise unlimited amounts from influence-seeking corporations, wealthy individuals, labor unions and others, and spend them to influence federal elections.

Unlimited money and secret money in our elections are a formula for corruption and scandal, which are coming our way.

However, corruption and scandal also create opportunities for major reforms and those opportunities are also coming.

We need to build a national movement in 2012 for reform of the current corrupt campaign finance system for electing the President and members of Congress.

We need to end secret money in federal elections by passing new disclosure legislation.

We need to give candidates an alternative way to finance their campaigns without having to depend on influence-seeking money, an alternative that is based on empowering citizens by matching small donations with multiple public matching funds.

That means we need to fix the presidential public financing system that served the nation well for most of its existence and we need to create a similar public financing system for congressional races.

And the next time President Obama invokes Teddy Roosevelt, we need President Obama to also invoke Roosevelt's call to arms about preventing corporate money from being used in our elections to corrupt government decisions.

We also need President Obama to recognize that President Teddy Roosevelt was the first major national figure to call for public financing of elections and we need President Obama to publicly advocate this essential reform.

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