“Up until that point in my life, I think by most definitions, I had been political inert,” Robin Monahan, a retired registered nurse living in St. Paul, Minn., told Mint Press News. “When I heard what the Supreme Court had done, I knew that it was a terrible thing because of corporations’ incredible influence. In my own way, I was outraged.”
When Monahan learned in 2010 of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which gave corporations the right to free speech and unlimited campaign spending power, he was disgusted.
He began to do his research, which only validated his suspicion that the Supreme Court decision was monumental, with consequences that directly threatened the nation’s democratic system.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision gave corporations and unions the right to unlimited campaign spending. The ruling doesn’t apply to contributions made directly to political candidates, but it leaves open the door to unlimited and unrestricted donations to third-party entities, including nonprofits and social welfare organizations, which serve as a primary source of campaign advertising.
The results: In 2012, the first election cycle following the monumental Supreme Court decision, an estimated $6 billion was spent on campaigns, an amount comparable to the gross domestic product of Zimbabwe. It was an all-time record in the U.S., according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
For outside organizations, spending totals also reached a high of an estimated $970 million, according to the center.
“In the new campaign finance landscape post-Citizens United, we’re seeing historic spending levels spurred by outside groups dominated by a small number of individuals and organizations making exceptional contributions,” Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said in a statement.
This month, Delaware became the 15th state to pass a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. The vote represents a growing grassroots movement of advocacy — one that’s shared by citizens across the political spectrum, and one that’s unlikely to die out anytime soon.
“There is no more critical foundation to our government than citizens’ confidence in fair and free elections,” a letter to Congress signed by a bipartisan majority of Delaware legislatures states. “The Citizens United decision directly undermines this confidence, and was issued in the absence of any evidence or searching inquiry to refute the fair assumption that unbridled and opaque spending in politics harms American democracy.”
Walking for justice
Ten days after the January Supreme Court decision, Monahan received a call from his brother, Laird Monahan, a retired ship’s officer.
“He said he was so damn mad about what the Supreme Court had done that he was going to walk across the country to wake people up,” he said.
As it turned out, they both were mad.
“I became more and more convinced that the idea of corporations having constitutional rights is not only absurd, but incredibly harmful to the notion of democracy because it gives them control over our elected officials and influence in legislation that gets passed to favor their bottom line, if you will,” he said.
The Monahan brothers began their walking journey against Citizens United on May 16 in San Francisco, Calif. On Oct. 25, they arrived in Ocean City, Md. To raise awareness, they stopped at rallies along the way, most of which they had organized themselves.
Aside from rallies, the brothers talked to people — a lot of people. What they discovered was a unified opinion among even those whose political activity was minimal. For most people they met, the idea of corporations contributing unlimited amounts to the political campaign process was outrageous.
“We talked to thousands of people who agree that corporations should not have constitutional rights,” Monahan said. “We found three people who thought corporations should have constitutional rights.”
The Monahans’ experience wasn’t too far off, judging by national polls on the issue.
According to a 2012 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll for Democracy Corps, 62 percent of Americans opposed the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, with 46 percent “strongly opposed” to it.
In 2010, just a few months after the Supreme Court ruling, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 80 percent of Americans opposed the decision.
It’s that unpopularity that’s fueling movements like those seen in Delaware and throughout the nation, with residents in states throughout the country educating the public and pressuring state legislatures to act on behalf of their constituents.
Monahan isn’t surprised that so many Americans are organizing at the grassroots level, as he witnessed the movement from the ground. After returning home from his walk against Citizens United, Monahan became involved in his local “Move to Amend” chapter.
While based in Minnesota, the organization is part of a national coalition of people from all sides of the political spectrum who are lobbying state governments to send their message to Congress.
Paul Karlson, volunteer chairperson for St. Paul Area Move to Amend, says the organization in Minnesota is like others throughout the nation — it runs solely on the dedication of volunteers, who run a pure on-the-ground grassroots campaign.
“So many people recognize that we don’t really have a true democracy,” Karlson told Mint Press News. “We want to have our votes count, and we want to take our country back.”
While Minnesota hasn’t yet reached the milestone seen in Delaware and 14 other states around the nation, it’s close.
On May 2, the Minnesota Senate passed HF 276, a resolution that calls on Congress to propose a constitutional amendment or set up a constitutional convention aimed at “clarifying that the rights protected under the Constitution are the rights of natural persons and not artificial entities, and that spending money to influence elections is not speech under the First Amendment.”
A House version of the resolution is expected to be introduced by the end of the legislative session.
The resolution has received bipartisan support — a good sign for Move to Amend, an organization Monahan describes as “transpolitical” in nature. The state’s bipartisan support isn’t uncommon. In Maine, a similar resolution passed this year with a vote of 111-33, with 25 Republicans joining the movement.
While the grassroots movement is seeing progress, those involved are realistic that Congress likely won’t be eager to budge, despite state support rolling in.
“I’m a believer in miracles, but I don’t depend on miracles to make things happen,” Monahan told Mint Press News.
He, like others, doesn’t expect Citizens United to be overturned anytime soon, possibly not in his lifetime. Yet he said that’s no reason to not dedicate time, or a walk across the country, to the cause.
“It’s probably not going to happen in my lifetime, but I do have four children. Already in my lifetime I have seen and I am aware that their life is not going to be nearly as good as mine has been,” he said. “We’re not against corporations, corporations are an essential part of our economy. But I don’t want them in my government — I don’t want them fueling the system that is so oppressive. I’m doing this for my children — and for children everywhere.”
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