The Group That's Taking On 'Citizens United'
Seeking to amend the Constitution, from the grass roots up
Dan Klein, a 64-year-old moving company contractor, considers himself neither Republican nor Democrat, liberal nor conservative. “I refuse to fit in a box,” he said this week. “I’m an analytical thinker, a problem-solver.” He believes the country should invest more heavily in infrastructure and public education not to achieve some leftist utopia but because he thinks those investments would pay off—”return on investment,” he said, using the hard-bitten business term.
From Klein’s vantage point, the nation’s failure to do so—and its failure to do much of anything these days except wage war—has a single cause. “It’s clearly coming from the influence of money,” he said Monday in a classroom at Charlotte School of Law, where he’d just taken in a talk about just that topic by a man who was the Green Party nominee for President in 2004. “I recognized early on that money in politics is the elephant in the room. But the media never talks about it.”
That’s not entirely true. People like Bill Moyers and Amy Goodman talk about it quite a bit. But it’s discussed far less on the networks and the cable news triumvirate of CNN, MSNBC, and, of course, Fox News Channel. The Green Party guy, David Cobb—now campaigning on behalf of an organization called Move To Amend—wants that to change, day by day, conversation after conversation. Regardless of how much it’s covered, the explosion of money in politics is the one issue in American politics that dominates everything else, and Klein recognized it was critical enough to want to hear Cobb speak. So he drove to Charlotte—from Wilmington.
Move To Amend’s ultimate goal is a Constitutional amendment that explicitly rejects the cornerstones of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision: that corporations have the First Amendment rights of individuals, and that money in the form of independent campaign spending is a type of protected political speech.
The decision has led to record amounts of spending in political campaigns and candidates in both parties beholden, to a degree never seen before, to their most generous contributors, therefore the richest, therefore not the vast majority of us.
That’s Cobb’s central message. He’s a balding, bespectacled 51-year-old lawyer from Texas by way of California whose presentation—outlining the basics of the American system of government and the myriad ways the reality falls short of the ideal—is punctuated with jokes, gestures, and occasional profanity. Cobb has a manic manner and a goofy grin, and he’s prone to sweeping assertions; it’s tempting to dismiss him and the movement.
Except that what he says is absolutely true, and that Move To Amend has its eye both on the central problem and the only realistic solution.
“Make no mistake about it, these people are addicts. They’re addicted to power and wealth accumulation,” Cobb said, referring to the majority of billionaire CEOs, not naming, or having to name, the Koch Brothers and their ilk. “They’ve legalized the theft of our sacred right to self-government.”
The organization formed in California in late 2009, anticipating the Roberts court’s decision in Citizens United. It’s grown to form 124 affiliate chapters in 33 states, including three in North Carolina: Asheville, Sylva, and Charlotte. The Charlotte affiliate started a year ago, after attorney Vicki Rowan realized that the Occupy movement lacked a practical goal (see below).
When it's used well, grassroots activism can swing elections. But can it lead to a Constitutional amendment?
Cobb thinks it can, even though he knows it’d take years, probably decades. But the group is just getting started. “By 2018, corporate Constitutional rights will be an issue in every election in the country,” he said, “because we’ll make it one.”
Quixotic? Maybe. But every movement starts with a true believer crazy and passionate enough to reach beyond his or her grasp until, sometimes, the impossible becomes the grasped. Dan Klein said he’d do his part by telling as many people as he can about Move To Amend.
“And wear this t-shirt,” he said, holding up a folded red garment with the organization’s logo. “So people can ask me more.”