One of the more challenging concerns facing the movement to amend the Constitution is whether or not conservatives* in Congress, who are mostly Republicans, are going to be willing to abide by the will of the people and pass an amendment to the Constitution that, at the very least, overturns the Citizens United decision. So far, the evidence appears very weak that Republicans and bluedog Democrats in Congress have any interest in challenging their corporate paymasters. What will it require to change that?
Because the right-wing echo chamber has not really geared up in opposition to an amendment that would help bring a bad chapter of American history to a close, the citizens, even those who are registered Republican, are solidly behind a strongly worded amendment. During the Republican primary in Wisconsin this year, Move to Amend activists got this question on the ballot in a conservative Milwaukee suburb, West Ellis. A solid 70% of those primary voters supported having Congress pass an amendment that would abolish corporate constitutional rights and end the doctrine that money is a form of speech and therefore protected by the 1st Amendment.
According to Hart Research Associates, 82% of voters want Congress to take action to limit the amount that corporations can spend on elections. 64 – 67% of voters disapprove of the Citizens United decision. 77% of voters believe that corporations have the advantage in our political system, and 79% of voters support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision.
By contrast, how many Republican Senators attending the subcommittee hearing that examined the matter of amending the Constitution to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision? Zero. (See Lessig’s comments below piece.) How many Republicans on the Tompkins County (around Ithaca, NY) Legislature voted to support a resolution calling on Congress to pass an amendment to overturn this decision? Zero. We made the case to them that principled conservatives should support the abolition of corporate rights, and we even quoted Senator McCain’s critical remarks about Citizens United to no avail.
The choice is clear: if an amendment is going to get passed, people either have to convince many House and Senate members, who are currently protecting the corporate interests, to do so; or they will have to activate Article V of the Constitution and bypass Congress for the first time in history. The movement does not need to shift the Overton Window in its direction, the direction of democratic (as opposed to corporate) control of the government. The voters are clearly in support of this movement to amend the Constitution. Therefore, people in this movement must help make the connection in voters’ minds between those candidates who support a government of, by and for the people and which candidate is preferred. It is far more challenging to move that awareness into the decision making process for a majority of voters leading up to election day if We the People are to gain control of the currently corporate-run state. To do this, voters will need to grasp what all is at stake when they choose a candidate for federal and state legislative office. If this fails in 2 or 3 election cycles, then a constitutional convention will have to be sought.
Can activists in this movement convince the representatives, who owe a debt of gratitude to the corporate agents who paid for the advertisements that got them elected, to vote for an amendment? What would it take to persuade elected politicians that they need to support the will of the people and not their corporate masters? If the answers to those questions are “no” and “you don’t have enough money,” then one alternative is to vote them out of office. That is what they deserve — and should expect — for standing outside of the Overton Window. In other words, the grassroots movement seeking to abolish corporate rights will need to understand and employ the Overton Window.
Joseph Overton worked to promote freedom and free-market ideals. It is described as follows:
Joseph Overton observed that in a given public policy area, such as education, only a relatively narrow range of potential policies will be considered politically acceptable. This “window” of politically acceptable options is primarily defined not by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they believe they can support and still win re-election. In general, then, the window shifts to include different policy options not when ideas change among politicians, but when ideas change in the society that elects them. [Emphasis added.]
The Mackinac website does not list a range of possibilities along an axis (public policy area) of analysis for the corporations having — or not having — rights. If they did, it would extend from corporations having all rights defined under the Constitution including those they do not yet have (the right to bear arms and the right to vote for example) all the way to the opposite condition which was established by the framers, namely that corporations are property and have privileges but no constitutional rights. The framers made it very clear: the Constitution and its amendments were for “We the People.” That is the principled position of the Move to Amend and Free Speech for People. It is the position of 70% of the voters in W. Ellis; it is the mainstream American position. It is the elected representatives of corporate agents, corrupted Supreme Court judges and a minority of Americans who disagree with that principled position.
If Republicans in Congress will not abide by the will of the people as expressed in hundreds of resolutions passed around the country, then either the people need to make this a key component of who they vote for in elections to displace the corporatists from power, or the movement will have to invoke Article V’s provision and
request demand that state legislators pass resolutions calling for a constitutional convention. That will require a mass movement considerably more influential than the one currently in place. That will not require a shift of the Overton Window, since public sentiment is already with legislators supporting a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. It will require that voters make this central in their thinking when the vote for state and Congressional representatives. That will require a lot more work from many more activists than are currently engaged in the movement.
If Congress will not act, then movement activists will have to pressure the state legislatures to call for a constitutional convention to amend the Constitution, a possibility that many consider fraught with the dangers of unexpected and undesirable outcomes. The idea of a constitutional convention is so frightening to many people, that the very idea of it, and the promise to pursue this approach if Congress will not pass an amendment, may be sufficient to get some conservatives in Congress to support the people and vote for an amendment. It is a tactic worth considering at some point.
It is very possible that corporate Congressional Republicans and Democrats will have to feel heat in elections, i.e., to get displaced by abolitionists, before the corporate representatives will decide that continuing to stand with their corporate masters is not worth the risk of losing their seat in office. This may only require a few examples around the country to send the message, but it is pressure that will have to build from election to election if a constitutional convention is be be avoided. Currently, this movement is a long way from having a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United considered as a central issue in campaigns for elected office; and this will have to change in the coming years. In fact, the sooner the better. The problem for organizations like Move to Amend and Public Citizen is that they are 501 (3) corporations and, because of their tax status, cannot get involved in campaigns for elected office.
However, people acting as individuals can take action. First, find out if your Representatives and Senators support an amendment to overturn Citizens United or not. If not, find out if their opponents support an amendment or not. If they both do, find out which one supports the two ideas: 1) that the constitutional rights of corporations (one of the cruxes of Citizens United) should be abolished and 2) the doctrine that money is speech (the other crux of Citizens United) should be overturned. If they both do, find another race to affect. If neither candidate supports an amendment, either look into third party candidates or find another race to donate your time and/or money to.
It does not require hundreds of people in each Congressional district to successfully work on this effort. It only takes a handful of folks willing and able to make this case in letters to the editor, on local talk shows (radio and TV) and online, i.e., social media, e-mail chain letters, blogs, etc. In tight races around the country, this citizen action in Congressional races could be the first few seats changed to demonstrate to conservatives that they, too, will become targeted for removal from office if they don’t vote in accordance to the will of the people…just as Overton predicted they should be.
The perhaps insurmountable challenge to even the most highly motivated political activist is something that Overton did not predict. It is something that has the potential of rendering his theory obsolete. That challenge derives from the super PACs — unleashed by Citizens United (and the consequent SpeechNow v FEC) decisions — and their ability to turn an election toward the pro-corporate (or away from the pro-democracy) candidate with deceitful advertising and sleazy propaganda. In other words, the Supreme Court may well have slammed the Overton Window shut and nailed plywood over it. May have. Only time will tell if that is true or not, but meanwhile voters need to be informed about where the candidates in state and federal elections stand on amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United and get the country back in line with the principles set forth by the framers: rights are for people and corporations should have only the privileges granted to them by the state. An informed citizenry is our best hope for the future. The corporations have the television to misinform voters, and the movement has the Internet. This inexpensive communications machine may be democracy’s best, last hope.
* Update: By “conservative” I am not referring to someone who want less government involvement in the economy. The correct word is corporatist, a politician who accepts corporate-backed, super PAC money in their races and who are essentially willing to pass any law that Wall Street bankers want passed and block any law that these same bankers want blocked. Corporatists are at the beck and call of corporations, not the American people; and they belong to both major Parties.