The “Democracy is for the People” Movement

By Caroline Burke Post date: Feb 03, 2016

Location

Key Findings

 
1. When done correctly, grassroots campaigns can be highly effective in spreading information and organizing citizenry within a democratic nation.
2. Information and mass involvement alone are not sufficient indicators of the success of a movement. There have to be concrete results that arise as a result of the success of these factors, such as the involvement of state legislature due to pressure from its citizenry.
3. Demonstrations, rallies and protests are an effective strategy in the effort to overturn rulings that are passed down within a democratic nation.
4. The “Democracy is for People” Movement has implemented all of these factors to yield success in pressuring state legislature and federal politicians to support an Amendment that overturns Supreme Court rulings that allow freedom of corporations and individuals to donate unlimited
funds to politicians.
5. There is no reason to radically change the strategies of the movement, as it has shown several signs of short term progress and, if given a few more years, could very feasibly pass the Amendment in the near future.
6. The adjustments that could be made to the movement are small changes to the current strategies, such as expanded tactics within social media campaigns to spread awareness and sustain the momentum of the movement.
 
The “Democracy is for People” movement is a grassroots effort spearheaded by the nongovernmental organization Public Citizen, based in Washington, D.C. The movement works under the following motive: It believes that “the government should serve voters, not corporate interests”, and it “pushes to curb the influence of money in politics by exposing the influence of big corporations on government.” The main strategies of the movement exist within a grassroots effort to engage citizens to sign petitions and encourage their state legislature to pressure the federal government to restrict corporate spending on campaigns. In recent years, the main focus for the Democracy for People movement has revolved around an attempt to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which ruled in 2010 that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures from nonprofit corporations; the principles articulated in the case have since been extended to forprofit corporations, labor unions and other associations. In 2013, the ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC compounded upon this principle, when the Supreme Court invalidated contribution limits as violating the First Amendment. The Democracy is for People Movement has made several advances in the journey towards overturning these rulings. Some of the milestones of success can be found in the following landmarks: over sixteen state legislatures have called for an amendment overturning these ruling, over one hundred twenty five members of Congress have committed to backing a Constitutional overturn of the ruling, and over two million citizens have signed the movement’s petition to overturn. Although the obvious central goal for the movement as of nowto overturn these rulings with an amendment prohibiting limitless spending on campaignshas not yet been accomplished, these statistics are evidence of a clearly successful strategy that has yielded immediate success and clear momentum over a short period of time. The strategy and grassroots tactics of the movement should not be entirely altered, but rather should be expanded on a grander scale via social media and nonviolent demonstrations in order to attract a wider audience to the
cause.

 

Background Context


The “Democracy is for the People” Movement works as a branch of the Public Citizen organization. Public Citizen is a nonprofit organization that works to champion citizen interests before Congress in an array of areas. It has challenged the practices of the pharmaceutical, nuclear, and automobile industries in addition to many others. Since its founding in 1971, Public Citizen has worked on an array of projects with the central goal that “all citizens are represented in the halls of power.” The main obstacle that this particular movement was founded to overcome is the corruption of politics within campaigns and elections that occur when corporations and extremely wealthy individuals spend inordinate amounts of money into the candidate of their choice. This issue became far more prevalent during the two rulings of Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC. These rulings are pivotal in the fight to keep campaigns “for the people, by the people: because they ruled that it is unconstitutional to limit any amount of donation to campaigns by individuals or corporations alike. The first ruling, Citizens United v. FEC, was passed on January 1, 2010. It held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation. However, since the passing of the ruling, the principles articulated by the Supreme Court have been extended to forprofit corporations, labor unions and other associations. The second ruling, in McCutcheon v. FEC, expounded upon the initial ruling by directly striking down the aggregate limits on the amount that an individual may contribute during a two year period to any federal candidate, party and political action committee combined.
 
The outcome of these combined Supreme Court rulings was evident immediately. In 2012, during the first presidential election since the Citizens United ruling, outside spending on the election totaled more donation capital than in 2010, 2008, 2004, 2002 and 2000 combined. The central objection that the Democracy is for People movement has against this increased spending is that it leads to an inaccurate amount of influence upon candidates and political parties by groups or individuals that do not represent the collective majority of voters, therefore obstructing democracy and creating a disproportionate representation of money in relation to citizen interests. Furthermore, the issue of “dark money” (funds given to political nonprofits that are not required to disclose their donors) has become an increasing issue as well in recent election years as a result of these rulings; in 2014, the federal midterm elections were believed to be influenced by “the greatest wave of secret, specialinterest money ever received in a congressional election.” All of these recent events have increased the occurrences of candidates accepting virtual bribery by massive corporations that are able to invest countless million dollars into the campaigns of political campaigns, thus having a greater impact on that candidate’s political acts than the average voter.

 

Central Actors and Mechanisms


The central actors within the Democracy is for People Movement are largely amorphous, because the strength of the movement lies in its accessibility to a wide range of American citizens with varying levels of commitment. However, some of the most influential actors on the side of the movement are well known politicians who have endorsed the movement and the amendment to overturn the Supreme Court rulings, such as Senators Ted Deutsch and Bernie Sanders. Beyond that, the most influential actors driving the movement are the tens of thousands of citizens who contribute to the power of the petitions and legislative drives to overturn the rulings.
 
The major actors working against the movement are the Supreme Court and the corporations and individuals contributing huge sums of money to campaigns since the 2010 and 2012 rulings. For example, Michael Bloomberg has donated over twenty five million dollars to the Democratic presidential campaigns in the last two elections, and Charles Koch donated seven million dollars to the last presidential campaign for the Republican party. In terms of organizations, the Service Employees International Union has donated over two hundred million dollars to the democratic party. This is just a sample of the skyrocketing cost of influencing change within politics, as the federal political candidates are inevitably indebted to those who donate the most to their campaigns to get them elected. The actors within this conflict are largely domestic, and there are both local and national institutions at play. Since the movement is based in Washington, D.C., it is likely that the greatest concentration of the movement exists in that area.
 
Although the main goal of the movement has yet to be achieved, the movement has made extensive progress in the five years since the Citizens United v. FEC ruling in 2010. As was stated in the executive summary, sixteen states, one hundred and twenty five Congress members and two million American voters have publicly signed their support to an amendment that, if ratified, will overturn both the Citizens United and the McCutcheon rulings. The amendment, aptly titled the “Democracy is for the People Amendment,” is sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Ted Deutsch and proclaims the following: “Whereas the right to vote in public elections belongs only to natural people as citizens of the United States, so shall the ability to make contributions and expenditures to influence the outcomes of public elections belong only to natural persons…”
 
In introducing the Amendment, Congressman Ted Deutsch said, “What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to tell billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, ‘You own and control Wall Street. You own and control coal companies. You own and control oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we’re going to give you the opportunity to own and control the United States government.’ That is the essence of what Citizens United is all about. That is why this disastrous decision must be overturned.”
 
On March twelfth, 2013, the amendment was introduced to the 113th Congress with thirty three congressmen from the House of Representatives as original cosponsors on the resolution. The resolution has not been passed yet, but since the resolution was introduced, it has since garnered more support and over two million signatures in its online petition.
 
The innovative aspect of this movement is that it is a perfect example of a movement that utilizes social media to fuel its grassroots foundation. The Democracy is for the People movement has a facebook page with over thirty thousand “likes”; although this is not an obvious indicator of involvement, it definitely represents the capacity of the movement to advertise itself and spread information. However, the movement is also interesting because a good amount of its supposed success is relatively useless if the goal itself is not achieved. Until the rulings are overturned independently or the “Democracy is for the People” amendment is passed and the rulings are overturned in that sense, the movement will have virtual rather than physical success.

 

Conclusion

Public Citizen’s “Democracy is for the People” movement is a grassroots, citizendriven movement whose main goal is to overturn two Supreme Court rulings that have allowed spending on political campaigns to skyrocket. The movement has yielded success as outlined above. The key obstacle for the movement in the next two to three years will be sustaining the momentum that it has garnered since 2010, as movements can often die after yielding relative success but no concrete outcome. Based on its track record, it seems likely that more states, senators, and American citizens will become involved. There should be further assessments as the movement becomes older in the next several years to better measure the likelihood of the Amendment passage, as that will allow consideration for other tactics if that does not happen. Another critical aspect of this movement is that it can only occur within a democracy that allows freedom of speech and freedom of protest. This movement would not be applicable in third world countries or authoritarian regimes, and thus the tactics within the movement must be understood as successful within the sphere of conditions that they are occurring in.

 

Bibliography

1. Democracy is for People Movement Website, www.democracyisforpeople.org
2. Ted Deutsch Congressional Website,
3. Center for Responsive Politics, https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/list.php