The #SoProgressive American Money-Democracy

Milk and the Sirens

In the story of Homer called “The Odyssey“, the hero “Odysseus” is traveling home in his warship after the war in Troy. On their route Odysseus and his sailors will pass a territory with the seductive ”Sirens”, mystical creatures who with their beautiful singing lure sailors in to eventually kill them. Odysseus wants to hear the beautiful singing of the Sirens, but skip the dying part. He instructs his sailors to put wax in their ears, so they can’t hear the singing of the Sirens as they pass them by. Odysseus also instructs his sailors to bind him up to the mast of the ship so he can hear the Sirens. And he instructs them not to unloose him when they pass the Sirens, even if he begged and prayed for it. With this ploy Odysseus and his sailors survive call of the Sirens.

Try to see “Odysseus” as the politician who could become corrupted by the “Sirens of money in politics”. How did Odysseus protect himself? By taking action against the Sirens or against himself?

Jon Stewart, as so often, can summarize the very complicated in a few simple sentences:

Nancy Pelosi, I’ll never forget, was sitting on the show saying we have to get money out of politics. You raised $32 million for your PAC. It was the most of anybody. Well, what are we supposed to do, disarm? Well no, but if money corrupts the process, and you have to get money, then you’re being corrupted by the process. No. It corrupts them. Why doesn’t it corrupt you? We’re not corruptible. Really? Because that’s what an insane person would say. Ice cream makes them fat. It doesn’t make us fat. We can metabolize it. You know why? Because we know it’s bad for you. If you know it’s bad for you, it doesn’t affect you.

Comedians seem to be the wisest persons in America. In the 2012 election Stephen Colbert started his own Super PAC (Political Action Committee) to show how ridiculous money in politics had gotten. Annie Ouyang made a youtube-video on this subject for her digital arts class, it explains perfectly the workings of Super PACs.

This year another comedian, John Oliver, made some serious jokes about money in politics. In this segment for his show Last Week Tonight Oliver explains how congressional politicians are spending more time fundraising than making laws. Even politicians themselves complain about all the fundraising they apparently have to do.

In April of this year the people took it to the streets with Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening. A huge protest to protect voting rights and get money out of politics. The Young Turks, an online media company, reported on their protests and civil disobedience in Washington D.C. Including the arrests of the boss of The Young Turks, Cenk Uygur, actrice Rosario Dawson, and many other Americans. These two videos really show that the American people have had enough with big money interests in politics. They’re ready to get arrested for the greater good.

The American democracy is sick, very sick, so sick that it’s on the intensive care unit. It’s going to take strong medicine and hard measures to prevent the American democracy from dying. What can be done?

Campaign Finance Reform Proposals

In 1998 there was a law on campaign finance reform passed in Massachusetts by ballot initiative. The full text of the “ballot question” put to the people of Massachusetts can be found here. Section 1, which is called “Findings and Declarations” is very interesting to read, because it tells you how a large part of the people of Massachusetts looked to money in politics 1998, and how much that’s in line with how the American people still think about it in 2016. A few condensed samples from the ballot initiative to illustrate this point (I do encourage you to read Section 1 in its entirety):

  • The current way of paying for campaigns undermines democracy
  • It threatens the democratic principle of “one person, one vote” by allowing large contributors to have a disproportionate and therefore deleterious influence on the political process
  • It drives up the cost of election campaigns, making it difficult for qualified candidates without personal fortunes or access to large contributions to mount competitive campaigns
  • It undermines the core democratic ideal of open and robust debate on issues of public concern
  • It fuels the public perception of corruption and undermines public confidence in democratic institutions and process
  • It diminishes the accountability of elected officials to their constituents by encouraging them to be disproportionately accountable to the major contributors who finance their election campaigns

Ballotpedia summarizes this law as follows:

This proposed law would create a new voluntary system allowing candidates for state office who agree to campaign spending limits and $100 contribution limits to receive a set amount of public funds for their campaigns, starting with the 2002 election. The proposed law would also limit transfers of money from national political parties to state political parties for administrative, overhead, or party-building activities. It would also require candidates for state office who had raised or spent at least a set minimum amount in an election cycle to file their required campaign finance reports with the state electronically, and the public would have prompt electronic access to such reports.

Politicians who will be bound by “campaign spending limits.” In this law there were concrete spending limit amounts mentioned for running for office as: Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General or Treasurer, Secretary of State or Auditor, Councillor, Senator and Representative. The politicians were bound by spending limits, not the campaign contributors. Not a limit on the amount of money (or milk) you could give to a politician, but a limit on the amount of money a politician could spend in a particular campaign. Self-protection for the politician. For the “sacrifice” these politicians got a set amount of public funds.

The people of Massachusetts had proposed and passed a law, in the spirit of Odysseus, with 58,4% votes in favor and 29,6% against. Unfortunately, the politicians of Massachusetts couldn’t resist the call of “the Sirens of Money” and repealed the people’s law in 2003.

Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, for years has been campaigning against the corrupting influence of money in politics. This year Lessig decided to step up his effort by running for President of the Untied States in the Democratic primaries: to safe the American democracy from the corruption that’s eating it up from within. With regard to ending money in politics the Lessig-campaign proposed the following: “The Citizen Equality Act will end pay-to-play politics by changing the way we fund campaigns by taking the best of Rep. Sarbanes’ “Government by the People Act”, and Represent.US’s “American Anti-Corruption Act.”

The “Government by the People Act” has three components:

Empower everyday citizens and engage them in the political process by providing a $25 My Voice Tax Credit for campaign contributions. Amplify: make everyday Americans just as powerful as big donors with a six-to-one match from the Freedom From Influence Fund, and give candidates the incentive to seek out small donors. Protect every American’s voice from being drowned out by big wealthy and well-connected donors, and allow citizen-funded candidates to combat Super PACs and outside groups by earning additional public matching funds within 60 days of an election.

The general idea of this proposal is very simply to understand: by making little donors much more powerful you make big donors less powerful. You create a counter-balance. Ironically, not by taking money out of the system, but adding a lot of money into the political system via many small donors. This would, like it did with Bernie Sanders, give a politician the possibility to run for office without being dependent on big donors.

Question is how much are small donors prepared to donate to candidates down the ballot. One way of tackling this problem is creating an organization to bundle the money of small donors for candidates down the ballot. Like Bernie Sanders is doing with “Our Revolution.” However, much as I like Bernie Sanders, one has to stay critical. The downside of such a larger organization could be that it gives the organization the ability, if it wants, to put pressure on politicians down the ballot, who want to get money from the collective funds, to support certain ideas.

This, off course, is not a problem at all if you know and support the ideas a particular organization which bundles money from small donors is pushing. Therefore, it’s wise to find out which procedures are in place for politicians running for office to access (your) money from the collective fund of small donors. And decide for yourself if you can accept those conditions and if you want to donate to this bundling organization of small donors.

Lessig proposed to create a law which takes the best of the “Government of the People Act” and the “American Anti-Corruption Act”. The first one we have discussed and deals with making small donors more powerful. The main goal of “American Anti-Corruption Act” is to stop political corruption and has the following components:

Make it illegal for politicians to take money from lobbyists: people who get paid to influence politicians can either lobby or donate – but they can’t do both. Ban lobbyist bundling: prohibits lobbyists from bundling contributions. Close the revolving door: stops elected representatives and senior staff from selling off their government power for high-paying lobbying jobs, prohibits them from negotiating jobs while in office, and bars them from all lobbying activity for several years once they leave. Mandate full transparency of all political money: any organization that spends significant funds on political advertisements is required to file a timely online report disclosing its major donors. Change how elections are funded: offers every voter a small credit they can use to make a political donation with no out-of-pocket expense. Candidates and political groups are only eligible to receive these credits if they agree to fundraise solely from small donors and small-donor groups. Prevent politicians from fundraising during working hours: politicians are prevented from raising money during the workday, when they should be serving their constituents. Empower small donors over traditional PACs: incentivize the creation of new, small-donor PACs that only accept donations of $100 or less, giving regular voters a stronger voice in our elections. Crack down on super PACs: fix the rules aimed at preventing super PAC coordination. Eliminate lobbyist loopholes: prevent lobbyists from skirting the rules by strengthening the definition of lobbying and penalizing lobbyists who fail to register. Strengthen anti-corruption enforcement: fix the broken Federal Election Commission and gives prosecutors the tools they need to combat corruption.

I have little to add to above proposals, then just do it and do it as soon as possible. This leaves us with one more campaign finance issue to tackle.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United put “the Sirens” on steroids or made “Jon Stewart’s milk” super extra fat. In others words, it made an already existing problem much worse. The Center for Public Integrity explains in an article why the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United matters:

The Citizens United ruling, released in January 2010, tossed out the corporate and union ban on making independent expenditures and financing electioneering communications. It gave corporations and unions the green light to spend unlimited sums on ads and other political tools, calling for the election or defeat of individual candidates. In a nutshell, the high court’s 5-4 decision said that it is OK for corporations and labor unions to spend as much as they want to convince people to vote for or against a candidate. The decision did not affect contributions. It is still illegal for companies and labor unions to give money directly to candidates for federal office. The court said that because these funds were not being spent in coordination with a campaign, they “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Hillary Clinton’s proposals on “Campaign finance reform” can be found at her website, one of which is a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United within her first 30 days in office. To give credit where credit is due I think we should call this amendment: “The Clinton Amendment”. Already in 2010 Clinton recognized that I would take a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, which you can read in this email which leaked via Wikileaks. Those damn emails!

A few years after this Supreme Court decision in 2010 a lot of American Senators spoke out against it on the floor of the Senate, including: Harry Reid, Charles Schumer, Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy, Chris Coons, Michael Bennet, Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren, and Sheldon Whitehouse. Certain Senators even took the liberty to discuss Citizens United before the Supreme Court had ruled on it: John McCain (part 1) and part 2, and Russ Feingold.

Six days after the ruling of Supreme Court President Barack Obama came out against Citizens United in his State of the Union Address, mind you, with the Judges of the Supreme Court in the room right in front of him.

Wolf Pac” is a grassroots movement which supports a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. They point out there are two ways in which this can be done. Go through Congress or go through the State Legislators via an amendment proposing convention.

Look in the “Massachusetts Ballot Initiative” for ideas on (partly) public financing of campaigns. Look in the “Government by the People Act” how to give more power to small donors. Look in the “American Anti-Corruption Act” to fight against big money interests and corruption in politics. Look in the “Wolf Pac proposals” and the “Clinton Amendment” with regard to overturning Citizens United. And above all understand it is going take a comprehensive package of measures, a combination of everything I mentioned, to really address the problem of the corrupting influence of money in politics. Just doing one of those things isn’t enough: do them all.

Know that you’re not alone in this fight and that you have a lot of allies. Group together and push this political agenda forward!

Heal the American Democracy

The movement to end the corrupting influence of money in politics is one team with many players. To emphasize that even more than I have done above, and in closing, let’s take a look at some of the most outspoken people on the frontline of this fight. If I missed some very important other people send me their presentations via twitter or write it down in the comment section below. Same goes for proposals on campaign finance. If your suggestion is on topic, campaign finance and/or corruption in politics, I will add it in the list below with reference to you. Let our collective intelligence get to work!


Ronald Klain and Kevin Spacey: Politics and Ethics

Lawrence Lessig: Our democracy no longer represents the people. Here’s how we fix it

Zephyr Teachout: What is corrupt?

Marianne Williamson: Stand up, speak out!

Jane Mayer: Dark money

John Nichols and Robert McChesney: Selling out democracy

Arianna Huffington: How corporate greed, finance & political corruption are undermining America

Trevor Potter: Money and politics in the age of Citizens United

Intelligence Squared Debates: Money in politics still overregulated

Martin Gilens: Political inequality

Campaign Finance Reform Proposals and Measures

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.