Putting our democracy back within reach

Most people can remember with vivid accuracy where they were for the major events of their lifetime, yet few know where they were when our democracy was redefined in favor of the ultra-wealthy.  

Six years ago this January, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Citizens United, stating that it was unconstitutional to limit the independent spending of special interest groups. Since that time, special interest groups funded by wealthy donors have been spending more and more money on political elections, pricing out the importance of regular citizens like you or I.

Ruling in favor of Citizens United, a conservative lobbying group, the Supreme Court determined that corporations and unions have the same First Amendment rights as individuals. Not only does this mean that special interests can spend unrestricted amounts of money on campaign-related communications, it has also opened the door for so called “Super PACs” — political action committees that can accept (and spend) unlimited amounts of money from any entity, be it an individual or a corporation.

So what does that mean? In short, it means more money in politics than ever before. In 2010, the first year Citizens United went into effect, Super PACs seemed to be just testing the water as 83 Super PACs spent $62.6 million. Two years later 1,310 Super PACS spent $609.4 million (Center for Responsive Politics). That’s a whopping 972 percent increase in spending.  And in 2014, for the first time in history, the spending of independent outside organizations was more than spending by the candidates themselves. It begs the question, who are candidates responsible to?  We the voters the politicians supposedly represent or the wealthy donors who got them elected?

It is not a crime to be wealthy. It is not a crime to donate money to a candidate, political action committee, or organization that works on issues that are important to you. Greater participation in the democratic process should be encouraged. However, we should not be willing to allow a handful of special interests to donate unlimited amounts of money to dominate our democracy. Dark money should not control the power in our government. As the Declaration of Independence reminds us, “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  The reality is that a very small minority of wealthy people are spending more than many of us make in a year on political elections for the specific reason of advancing laws that benefit them. As we look around to the inequities in Minnesota, we need to do something to make democracy within reach to regular citizens.

In the early fall of 2015, members of Common Cause and other concerned citizens created a taskforce to hold our elected officials and any would be candidates for elected office accountable to getting big money out of politics. We will be introducing resolutions to change the state platforms of the political parties in Minnesota to include taking actions to overturn Citizens United and supporting the public financing of local elections.  Our elected officials should be doing more to protect our voice in democracy.

Changing the platform that candidates run on is a first step toward holding them accountable.

You can take part in this action by going to our website, downloading the resolutions and introducing them in your caucus. http://mn.commoncause.org/2016-Precinct-Caucus

You may not remember where you were in January of 2010 when the Supreme Court decided Citizens United, but I hope you know where you will be on March 1 when Minnesota holds its political caucuses.

Jeremy Schroeder is executive director of Common Cause Minnesota.