[Part one of a two-part report on American Promise and the National Citizen Leadership Conference. Part two is here.]
Gearing Up for Unity and Cooperation
Jeff Clements is no stranger to the pro-amendment movement. Author of Corporations are not People, co-founder of Free Speech for People, frequent speaker and educator on the topic of corporate rights, Mr. Clements has been a friend to the amendment community from day one. His newest venture is American Promise. Much as its lofty name implies, the purpose of American Promise (AP) is to empower and unify the many individuals and groups working to pass an amendment to abolish corporate constitutional rights and end the doctrine of money as speech, irrespective of ideology or affiliation.
If unity is a bit much to ask, perhaps comity can be achieved. To that end, American Promise is organizing the first cross-partisan, multi-organization conference solely dedicated to fostering cooperation within the pro-amendment movement. The National Citizen Leadership Conference will take place in Washington DC over three days from Friday, Sep. 30 to Sunday Oct. 2. Nearly every national organization with a significant footprint in the movement to end big money dominance of American politics and policy will be in attendance, including representatives from Free Speech for People, Move to Amend, Common Cause, Public Citizen, People for the American Way, the Stamp Stampede and Wolf PAC. More on the conference in part two.
American Promise does not seek to convince others to adopt specific amendment language or pursue a predetermined strategy. In a phone discussion this summer, Mr. Clements told me that the new organization is designed simply to provide tools and resources to individuals and local groups, create a platform for discussion and debate, and foster cooperation and some semblance of unity across the movement. As any veteran of the pro-amendment movement knows, there are many points of disagreement between individuals and groups aiming to overturn the Citizens United ruling, mitigate the impact of big money on elections and address the outsized influence of special interests on American public policy.
The people behind AP don’t believe they have all the answers or offer the best strategy. On the contrary, they recognize that the people and groups already established in this space have been doing great work educating, organizing and shepherding resolutions across the country, as well as critically important work, from the advocacy and movement organizing by Move to Amend to the legal services provided by Free Speech for People. What they believe has been missing is the “connective tissue” that enables people of goodwill to come together to air out differences of opinion. The Amendment Gazette was founded on the same principal, but a big advantage American Promise has (besides seed money and a big-name headliner, obviously) is in its membership structure.
Members of AP must pay dues on a sliding scale from $5 to $60 per month to gain access to the full array of resources AP offers. This structure enables AP to place the online discussion boards behind a paywall, theoretically shielding the debates and its participants from under-informed media and public scrutiny. Collecting dues eliminates the need to send fundraising appeals to members and supporters and serves as an incentive for members to stay engaged. More importantly, it mitigates the standard non-profit reliance on big money donors. Winning ratification of a strong amendment is going to take money. If a small fraction of the Americans who support meaningful reforms donate $15 per month (the average of all dues paid by AP Citizens), the amendment movement will have a fighting chance to compete against the corporate–think tank–media machine and the pro-elite apparatus it has assembled since Lewis Powell wrote his now infamous memo.
The American Promise network of local groups is still in its infancy, with a total of nine local American Promise Associations, or APAs, across the country. The nine APAs fall into three categories: pre-existing groups that joined AP, new APAs built by veterans of the movement, and start-ups with people new to movement organizing at the helm. New dues-paying members—known as AP Citizens—are connected with their local APAs. New APAs will be formed as geographical clusters of AP Citizens emerge. Dues are collected only from individuals, not from APAs. With or without connection to an APA, all members have access to the resources on the AP member site, AP Connect. APAs also gain access to the AP database of local supporters and use of the AP NationBuilder account for sending email blasts, organizing local events and assessing the impact of messaging and organizing strategies.
Other than moderating for typical social media etiquette, AP does not referee the content of the discussions on AP Connect. Members can start discussions, solicit advice and add resources that support movement education, organizing and strategic planning. Members can start and engage in debates on the wording of an amendment, what types of amendments should be pursued or if an Article V convention is worthwhile. AP Connect includes materials on amendment proposals from other orgs, as well as other ideas for amendments (like mandatory public campaign financing) for members to learn, discuss and debate. The idea, as Mr. Clements describes it, is to foster a horizontal approach in which the best ideas emerge from peer-to-peer discussions and not by edicts from on-high.
American Promise, as with most serious operators in the pro-amendment movement, doesn’t believe in taking shortcuts. AP does not plan to endorse or donate to any candidate for public office (a la Mayday PAC). The money raised from member dues goes directly to supporting movement-building by AP Citizens and Associations, and a small staff. As of this writing, AP has three paid staffers, two full-time and one part-time. Mr. Clements is offering his time and expertise without compensation, as are the communications director and members of the Board and AP Council.
During this soft launch period, the only decisions that need to be made involve infrastructure, like web hosting, email and organizing platforms. As such, there is no democratic decision-making process within AP. As the organization grows and the movement matures, decisions on what to prioritize in an amendment, what strategies to employ, if money is better spent on local organizing, regional advertising or national polling, etc, will come into play. AP Citizens, hopefully after lengthy engagement on all these issues, will have a voice in these kinds of policy decisions. But Mr. Clements and his advisors will probably continue to make the decisions on the best host company for the website.
The creation of American Promise is not intended to make other organizations obsolete but rather to make the entire movement better, more effective and more likely to succeed. Will it work? Can AP succeed in bringing folks from Wolf PAC and Common Cause into some semblance of accord with each other? We’ll start to find out next week when the National Citizen Leadership Conference (NCLC) kicks off in Washington DC on Friday, Sep. 30. The NCLC is the subject of part two here.