November 9, 2011

Occupying Democracy

We the people, not we the corporations

To the U.S.A.? No, Cohen’s got it all wrong.

As our leaders loudly preach, democracy is something we export to the rest of the world — to certain monarchies and autocratic regimes that rule Arab nations, for example. And it’s understandable though regrettable, they tell us, that there would be eruptions of pent-up anger at aloof upper classes in India, Greece, Spain and Israel.

But a genuinely populist uprising to bring democracy, both economic and political, to the U.S.A.? No way! Yet, there it is: the Occupy Wall Street movement, rapidly spreading nationwide. Even in Louisville, where a small but determined group of local protesters have congregated at Jefferson Square Park since Oct. 4.

It is real. It’s youth-driven, broad-based, determinedly democratic and deeply grounded in the most basic of American values of economic fairness, social justice and equal opportunity for all. It’s not about left-right ideologies, but top-down realities. It’s focused on the narcissistic greed of today’s financial and corporate elites and on their gross corruption of our political system by a flood of money from corporations that now masquerade as persons.

Is it exactly there? No, not by a long shot; but it has a shot. The motivation, idealism, creativity and passion are genuine, not the product of partisan consultants, think tanks, rich funders or large organizations. So the movement’s direct street action is turning out to be the spark that millions of disgusted grassroots people have needed to stop moaning and start acting, which is why Occupy Louisville and hundreds of other protests have sprung up across the country since the initial Wall Street initiative began in September. These people are on target and on the move.

If you doubt it, note the edgy tone of Mitt Romney, who recently expressed alarm about the rising rabble daring to confront the corporate order: “I think it’s dangerous, this class warfare.”

This was hardly the first plutocratic pronouncement by Romney, a dedicated warrior for the corporate class. In August, the well-heeled seeker of the GOP presidential nod, dressed in preppie-casual togs, hopped atop a hay bale at the Iowa State Fair. He looked as natural as a goose in a tuxedo. But then, after a somewhat testy exchange with fairgoers who had challenged him to end corporate tax breaks rather than cut benefits for people, Romney blurted out one of the stranger tenets of right-wing theology: “Corporations are people, my friend,” Romney said, with a little condescending chuckle.

Actually, corporations are nothing but pieces of paper issued by state governments. Nonetheless, the rising supremacy of America’s corporate plutocracy is based on courts and politicians having blind faith in the legitimacy of the corporations-are-people idolatry. It is not, however, something that its disciples wish to take to the people as an election issue, because, well, because it’s pure poppycock, and it would be resoundingly rejected if it were ever put to a direct vote. So, let us praise this chucklehead for inadvertently injecting the right-wing fiction of corporate personhood directly into the 2012 presidential election.

The good news is that across the country, the overwhelming majority of people (i.e. living, breathing humans) despise the anti-democratic domination of our elections by a relatively few self-aggrandizing corporate behemoths. This public anger has intensified since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.

Corporations are people? Who came up with that?

Sam Alito, Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas. On Jan. 21, 2010, these five Supreme Court justices defied the Constitution, common sense and the expressed will of the American people to distort hundreds of years of judicial precedent in a case titled Citizens United vs. FEC. The five decreed that — shazam! — artificial, lifeless corporate entities are entitled to the First Amendment rights of people, and are endowed with more electioneering rights than real-life voters, enabling them to buy public officials and intimidate others by dumping unlimited sums of corporate cash into elections. In one abrupt blow, these five men reversed more than a century of campaign-finance law and more than 200 years of broad public agreement that corporate interests should be subjugated to the public interest. Talk about judicial activism.

Now, not only can the living, breathing executives of corporations continue dumping millions of their own dollars into elections — money that totaled more than a billion dollars in the 2008 election cycle — but henceforth, the trillions of dollars held by the corporate entities themselves can also be poured into electioneering ads and other forms of speech. All big-money corporations, from Wall Street to Walmart, now have permission to open the spigots of their vast corporate treasuries and funnel unlimited sums of cash into campaigns to elect or defeat candidates of their choice for any and every office in the land.

Rather than merely influencing our elected federal, state and even local legislators with direct campaign donations from company executives, corporations can now utilize their often billion dollar-plus corporate treasuries to intimidate the people elected to serve all of the people. Big Insurance, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Box Stores, Big Banking, Big Whatever have suddenly been armed with the unlimited, devastating spending power of their practically bottomless corporate treasuries. Their lobbyists can bluntly say to a lawmaker, governor, mayor or other official, “After you support this little bitty tax break for us, we will spend a million bucks to re-elect you. If you don’t, we’ll spend the same amount to see you defeated.”

Ironically, Citizens United vs. FEC has united America’s citizenry in broad, deep and vehement opposition to the absurd notion that a corporation is entitled to inclusion as one of us — as in We the People. In poll after poll, huge majorities consistently scream against the ruling and demand strong action against it. A Hart Research survey in January 2011 — a year after the Court’s edict was issued — found that public opposition remained fervent, with 87 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of independents, and 68 percent of Republicans favoring passage of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and to make clear that corporations do not have the same rights as people.

Supreme Court cases and arcane matters of campaign finance don’t usually move the needle of public awareness from “Huh?” to “Hot damn!” But the perversion of our politics and government by deep-pocket corporations has been like sticking the public’s tongue in an electrical socket. People are energized, and they’ve turned such terms as Citizens United, the Roberts Court, the Koch Brothers, SuperPACs, and corporate personhood into curse words. The issue has even become a comic punch line: “If corporations are people,” asked a letter writer to The New York Times, “can I marry one? Is General Electric single?” And here’s another: “A corporation is not a person until Texas executes one.”

Waiting for the Powers That Be

In response to such strong public outrage, our elected stalwarts in Washington have risen up and responded decisively, by doing exactly nothing.

Republican leaders, long wedded to the corporate plutocracy by ideology and money, openly cheered the Court’s move. President Obama squawked briefly about the judicial hijacking of our democracy, and the Democratic party’s congressional leaders flapped their arms in anger for a while — but then they just let it go, slinking quietly away from the issue. (Importantly, a feisty Progressive Caucus in Congress continues to push the issue aggressively.)

The new Tea Party Republicans, who had barged into the congressional club with thundering claims that they had come to “take our country back” and “restore power to the people,” have been conspicuously silent on this most fundamental issue of the people’s power. Instead, they’ve slipped comfortably into it, with not a peep of protest over the fact that five unelected government officials have dictated that Big Money is a person with political rights to buy our government.

Now comes 2012, and Tea Partiers, Republicans, and corporate Democrats alike can be seen scurrying around like hunger-crazed squirrels in a frenetic grab-fest for the tens of millions of dollars — even hundreds of millions — that Mitt’s people are gleefully throwing around.

The money dump is well under way, and it’s massive. The tip of this destructive iceberg is a legalistic gimmick known as the SuperPAC. Authorized by Citizens United, these are super-sized, super-energized, political action committees. Unlike the regulated PACs of yesteryear, SuperPACs can — and will — invest tens of millions of dollars right out of corporate coffers — as well as from unions and individuals, but corporations are the monster players — and put the whole load directly into ads and other efforts to elect or defeat any candidates they choose.

How big of a load? Just one of these money monsters, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, raised a whopping $28 million from corporate interests to elect Republicans in last year’s elections. But that’s a mere trickle compared to the tsunami now headed our way; Rove’s Crossroads PAC is presently amassing a staggering $240 million for 2012.

Every major presidential candidate has at least one of these things sacking up and spending money specifically on their behalf. Rick Perry, for example, has six of them. Technically, SuperPACs are independent entities that must not coordinate their spending with the candidates they’re supporting. This legal prohibition against coordination is absolute. And it’s absolutely a farce and a fraud.

Perry’s top SuperPAC, modestly named Make Us Great Again, intends to put $55 million behind the Texan’s effort to win the GOP presidential nomination. It was created and is headed by Mike Toomey, a top corporate lobbyist in Texas before sliding over in 2002 to be Perry’s gubernatorial chief of staff. In 2004, Toomey slid back into lobbying, using his ties to Perry to become Austin’s preeminent corporate influence peddler and a fundraiser for the governor.

This year, Toomey helped Perry set up his presidential campaign, serving as both advisor and fundraiser. Now he runs the Make Us Great Again outfit, insisting that it is entirely separate from Perry’s campaign. Helloooo! The PAC and the campaign don’t have to coordinate, because both are embodied in Toomey.

It’s up to us. We are it.

This is not just another issue. It is central to practically every one of our issues, for it amounts to surrendering our democratic authority to, in Jefferson’s words, “the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations.”

The Court and the political elites have forced us into another of those when-in-the-course-of-human-events moments that Jefferson wrote about in the Declaration of Independence. This is a time in which ordinary people are called forth by history to do what our leaders won’t: assert the American people’s independence from authoritarian rule by corporate plutocrats.

The Powers That Be want us to believe that this effort is hopeless, that we can’t really undo the legal scaffolding of artificial personhood that the corporados have erected over flesh-and-blood citizens. Rather than attempting to deconstruct the Brave New America, they tell us, we should be satisfied with softening its rougher edges with things like campaign finance reporting requirements.

Now there’s a rallying cry for an angry public: “Give us campaign finance reporting regulations or give us death!”

How insulting to say that Americans today are too small to achieve big democratic results. And how erroneous. As a friend of mine notes, those who say it can’t be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.

Here’s a partial list of actions that are under way:

Amend: Two major coalitions are aggressively organizing grassroots power from coast to coast to demand and pass a constitutional amendment to prohibit corporations from buying elections. Yes, this is a difficult and lengthy process, but as an old Spanish dicho puts it, “Big maladies require big remedies.” The people have passed amendments before and we can again, especially for a cause that starts with such broad and passionate public support.

The group FreeSpeechForPeople.org proposes a straightforward amendment to repeal the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United ruling. The coalition’s battle cry: Citizens United against Citizens United. Meanwhile, MoveToAmend.org proposes a broader amendment to declare that only human beings, not corporations, are persons with constitutional rights.

Both coalitions have grassroots organizers, do-it-yourself toolkits for raising the issue locally, petitions to be circulated and sent to public officials, sample resolutions for local and state officials to pass, and a wealth of other organizing ideas and resources.

Uncover: One of the unfulfilled promises included in the Citizens United ruling is that corporations should at least have to disclose to shareholders and the public how much political money they spend on whom. Congressional Republicans, however, have blocked proposals to implement this minimalist democratic gesture, and President Obama so far has not issued administrative rules to shine even a little sunlight on secret electioneering by corporations.

But you don’t have to wait on Washington. Citizen groups in Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Colorado have pushed disclosure requirements into law, and at least nine federal courts have ruled that these requirements pass constitutional muster. Groups in California, Indiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Connecticut and elsewhere are pushing conflict-of-interest laws to ban or restrict campaign donations by corporations that seek government contracts.

In addition, employees and shareholders of some big corporations, along with other innovative citizens, have launched their own do-it-yourself disclosure campaigns. Using both inside tips and the occasional leak of secret corporate donations, they are publishing the information — á la Wikileaks — and holding protests at corporate offices to expose publicity-shy executives who are funneling shareholder funds into elections.

Impeach: At least two of the corporate-coddling Supremes — Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — had undisclosed ties to wealthy industrialists the Koch brothers and other secretive corporate plutocrats at the time the Court was considering the Citizens United case. Two national organizations have extensive information about the justices’ blatant disregard of basic ethics and are collecting petitions to hold them accountable.

CommonCause.org seeks a Justice Department investigation of the two and proposes that Supreme Court members be subjected to the Judicial Code of Conduct that applies to all other federal judges. RootsAction.org goes further, calling for impeachment proceedings against Thomas for accepting gifts from participants in cases before him and for filing false financial reports.

Connect: It’s not all bad news in Washington. Many members of Congress are pushing national policies to end or at least curtail the corrupting power of corporate political cash. It’s important to have an inside-outside strategy on these policies, linking grassroots strength (ideas, courage, energy and numbers) to those fighting inside for real reform. One of the best points of connection is the Progressive Caucus, co-chaired by Reps. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis and Raul Grijalva of Tucson.

Confront: The time to get the attention of Congress is now, when they’re running for office. Every candidate — incumbent, challenger, Republican, Tea Partier, Democrat, et al — should be confronted about corporate money. Make appointments, attend campaign events and town hall sessions, send queries and disseminate their responses as broadly as possible, even if all you get from them is gibberish.

Localize: All across the country, clean election coalitions have passed laws to give local and state candidates the alternative of using a public pool of money to finance their campaigns rather than having to kiss the ring of corporate interests. Learn about these successes and how to launch similar efforts at PubliCampaign.org.

Remember that democratic progress doesn’t come on the winds of history, but on the shoulders of determined people. Occupy Wall Street offers millions of strong shoulders with which to shove corporate money out of our politics and make “people power” more than an empty slogan. While the Constitution says “We the People,” not We the Corporations, the people themselves must make that distinction real.

Author, radio commentator, and all-round populist agitator Jim Hightower has spent the past four decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers that ought-to-be. His monthly Hightower Lowdown is available at hightowerlowdown.org

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