As our leaders loudly preach, democracy is something that we export to the rest of the world -- to certain autocratic regimes that rule Arab nations, for example. And it's understandable though regrettable, they tell us, that there would be eruptions of pent-up anger at aloof upper classes in India, Greece, Spain and Israel.
But a genuinely populist uprising to bring democracy, both economic and political, to the U.S.A.? No way! Yet, there it is: the sassy, brassy and savvy Occupy Wall Street movement, rapidly spreading to every zip code.
It is real. Yes, it's youth-driven, broad-based, determinedly democratic and deeply grounded in the most basic of American values of economic fairness, social justice and equal opportunity for all. It's not about left-right ideologies, but top-down realities. It's focused directly on the narcissistic greed of today's financial and corporate elites and on their gross corruption of our political system by a flood of money from corporations that now masquerade as persons.
Is the movement exactly there? No, not by a long shot; but it has a shot. The spunk, motivation, idealism, creativity and passion of these young people are genuine, not the product of partisan consultants, think tanks, rich funders or large organizations. So the movement's direct street action is turning out to be the spark that millions of disgusted grassroots people have needed to stop moaning and start acting, which is why Occupy Madison, Occupy Chicago, and hundreds of other Occupies have sprung up spontaneously across the country within three weeks of the Wall Street initiative. These people are on target and on the move.
If you doubt it, note the edgy tone of Mitt Romney, who recently expressed alarm about the rising rabble who're daring to confront the corporate order: "I think it's dangerous, this class warfare."
This was hardly the first plutocratic pronouncement by Romney, a dedicated warrior for the corporate class. In August, the well-heeled GOP presidential candidate, dressed in preppie-casual togs, hopped atop a hay bale at the Iowa State Fair. He looked as natural as a goose in a tuxedo. But then, after a somewhat testy exchange with fairgoers who had challenged him to end corporate tax breaks rather than cut benefits for people, Romney blurted out one of the stranger tenets of right-wing theology: "Corporations are people, my friend," Romney said, with a little condescending chuckle.
Actually, corporations are nothing but pieces of paper issued by state governments. Nonetheless, the rising supremacy of America's corporate plutocracy is based on courts and politicians having blind faith in the legitimacy of the corporations-are-people idolatry. It is not, however, something that its disciples wish to take to the people as an election issue, because, well, it's pure poppycock, and it would be resoundingly rejected if it were ever put to a direct vote. So, let us praise this chucklehead for inadvertently injecting the right-wing fiction of corporate personhood directly into the 2012 presidential election.
The good news is that across the country, the overwhelming majority of people despise the anti-democratic domination of our electionsand, therefore, of our government, economy, media and environment by a relatively few self-aggrandizing corporate behemoths. This public anger has intensified since the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v FEC.
Corporations are people? Who came up with that?
Sam Alito, Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas. On January 21, 2010, these five Supreme Court justices defied the Constitution, common sense, the expressed will of the American people and nature itself to distort hundreds of years of judicial precedent in a case titled Citizens United v FEC. The five decreed that -- shazam! -- artificial, lifeless corporate entities are entitled to the First Amendment rights of people, and are endowed with more electioneering rights than us real-life persons, enabling them to buy public officials and intimidate others by dumping unlimited sums of corporate cash into our elections. In one blow, these five men reversed more than a century of campaign-finance law and more than 200 years of broad public agreement that corporate interests should be subjugated to the public interest. Talk about your judicial activism.
Now, not only can the living, breathing executives of corporations continue dumping millions of their own dollars into elections -- money that totaled more than a billion dollars in the 2008 election cycle -- but henceforth, the trillions of dollars held by the corporate entities themselves can also be poured into electioneering ads and other forms of speech. All big-money corporations, from Wall Street to Wal-Mart, now have permission to open the spigots of their vast corporate treasuries and funnel unlimited sums of cash into campaigns to elect or defeat candidates of their choice for any and every office in the land.
Rather than merely influencing our elected federal, state and even local legislators with direct campaign donations from company executives, corporations can now utilize their often billion dollar-plus corporate treasuries to intimidate the people elected to serve all of the people. Big Insurance, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Box Store, Big Banking, Big Whatever have suddenly been armed with the devastating spending power of their practically bottomless corporate treasuries. Their lobbyists can bluntly say to a lawmaker, governor, mayor or other official, "After you support this little bitty tax break for us, we will spend a million bucks to reelect you. If you don't, we'll spend the same amount to see you defeated."
Ironically, Citizens United v FEC has united America's citizenry in opposition to the absurd notion that a corporation is entitled to inclusion as one of us as in We the People. In poll after poll, huge majorities consistently scream against the ruling and demand strong action against it. A Hart Research survey in January 2011 -- a year after the Court's edict was issued -- found that public opposition remained fervent, with 87 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of independents, and 68 percent of Republicans favoring passage of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and to make clear that corporations do not have the same rights as people.
Supreme Court cases and arcane matters of campaign finance don't usually move the needle of public awareness from "Huh?" to "Hot damn!" But the perversion of our politics and government by deep-pocket corporations has been like sticking the public's tongue in an electric socket. People are energized by it, and they've turned such terms as Citizens United, the Roberts Court, the Koch Brothers, SuperPACs, and corporate personhood into curse words. The issue has even become a comic punch line: "If corporations are people," asked a letter writer to the New York Times, "can I marry one? Is General Electric single?" And here's one from my state: "A corporation is not a person until Texas executes one."
In response to such strong public outrage, our elected stalwarts in Washington have risen up and responded decisively, by doing exactly nothing.
Republican leaders, long wedded to the corporate plutocracy by ideology and money, openly cheered the Court's move. President Obama squawked briefly about the judicial hijacking of our democracy, and the Democratic Party's congressional leaders flapped their arms in anger for a while -- but then they just let it go, slinking quietly away from the issue. (Importantly, a feisty Progressive Caucus in Congress continues to push the issue aggressively.)
The new tea party Republicans, who had barged into the congressional club with thundering claims that they had come to "take our country back" and "restore power to the people," have been conspicuously silent on this most fundamental issue of the people's power. Instead, they've slipped comfortably into it, with not a peep of protest over the fact that five unelected government officials have dictated that Big Money is a person with political rights to buy our government.
Now comes 2012, and tea partiers, Republicans and corporate Democrats alike can be seen scurrying around like hunger-crazed squirrels in a frenetic grab-fest for the tens of millions of dollars -- even hundreds of millions -- that corporations are gleefully throwing around.
The money dump is well underway, and it's massive. The tip of this destructive iceberg is a legalistic gimmick known as the SuperPAC. Authorized by Citizens United, these are super-sized, super-energized political action committees. Unlike the regulated PACs of yesteryear, SuperPACs can invest tens of millions of dollars right out of corporate coffers -- as well as from unions and individuals, but corporations are the monster players -- and put the whole load directly into ads and other efforts to elect or defeat any candidates they choose.
How big of a load? Just one of these money monsters, Karl Rove's American Crossroads, raised a whopping $28 million from corporate interests to elect Republicans in last year's elections. But that's a mere trickle compared to the tsunami now headed our way. Rove's Crossroads PAC is presently amassing a democracy-shattering $240 million for 2012.
Every major presidential candidate has at least one of these things sacking up and spending money specifically on their behalf. Rick Perry, for example, has six of them. Technically, SuperPACs are independent entities that must not coordinate their spending with the candidates they're supporting. This legal prohibition against coordination is absolute. And it's absolutely a farce and a fraud.
Perry's top SuperPAC, modestly named Make Us Great Again, intends to put $55 million behind the Texan's effort to win the GOP presidential nomination. It was created and is headed by Mike Toomey, a top corporate lobbyist in Texas before sliding over in 2002 to be Perry's gubernatorial chief of staff. In 2004, Toomey slid back into lobbying, using his tight ties to Perry to become Austin's preeminent corporate influence peddler and a fundraiser for the governor.
This year, Toomey helped Perry set up his presidential campaign, serving as both advisor and fundraiser. Now he runs the Make Us Great Again outfit, insisting that it is entirely separate from Perry's campaign. Helloooo! The PAC and the campaign don't have to coordinate, because both are embodied in Toomey.
The Court and the political elites have forced you and me into another of those when-in-the-course-of-human-events moments that Thomas Jefferson wrote about in the Declaration of Independence. This is a time in which ordinary people are called forth by history to do what our leaders won't: Assert the American people's independence from authoritarian rule by corporate plutocrats.
The Powers That Be want us to believe that this effort is hopeless, that we can't really undo the legal scaffolding of artificial personhood that the corporados have erected over us flesh-and-blood citizens. Rather than attempting to deconstruct the Brave New America, they tell us, we should be satisfied with softening its rougher edges with things like campaign finance reporting requirements.
Now there's a rallying cry for an angry public: "Give us campaign finance reporting regulations or give us death!"
How insulting to say that Americans today are too small to achieve big democratic results. And how erroneous. As a friend of mine notes, those who say it can't be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.
Here's a partial menu of actions that are underway or that you could start right where you live:
1. Amend. Two major coalitions are aggressively organizing grassroots power from coast to coast to demand and pass a constitutional amendment to prohibit corporations from buying our elections. Yes, this is a difficult and lengthy process, but as an old Spanish dicho puts it, "Big maladies require big remedies." The people have passed amendments before and we can again, especially for a cause that starts with such broad and passionate public support.
2. FreeSpeechForPeople.org proposes a straightforward amendment to repeal the Supremes' infamous Citizens United ruling. The coalition's battle cry is: Citizens United against Citizens United. MoveToAmend.org proposes a broader amendment to declare that only human beings, not corporations, are persons with constitutional rights.
Both coalitions have grassroots organizers, do-it-yourself toolkits for raising the issue locally, petitions to be circulated and sent to public officials, videos and other graphic materials for getting people informed, sample resolutions for local and state officials to pass, ways to connect people to o the national movement, and a wealth of other organizing ideas and resources.
3. Uncover. One of the little-noticed and unfulfilled promises included in the Court's Citizens United ruling is that corporations should at least have to disclose to shareholders and the public how much political money they spend on whom. Congressional Republicans, however, have blocked proposals to implement this minimalist democratic gesture, and President Obama so far has not issued administrative rules to shine even a little sunlight on secret electioneering by corporations.
But you don't have to wait on Washington. Citizens groups in Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin, and Boulder, Colorado, have pushed disclosure requirements into law, and at least nine federal courts have ruled that these requirements pass constitutional muster. Groups in Los Angeles, Fort Wayne and Chicago, in New Mexico, Connecticut and elsewhere are pushing conflict-of-interest laws to ban or restrict campaign donations by corporations that seek government contracts.
In addition, employees and shareholders of some big corporations, along with other innovative citizens, have launched their own do-it-yourself disclosure campaigns. Using both inside tips and the occasional leak of secret corporate donations, they are publishing the information á la wikileaks and holding protests at corporate offices to expose publicity-shy executives who are funneling shareholder funds into elections.
4. Impeach. At least two of the corporate-coddling Supremes -- Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- had undisclosed ties to the Koch brothers and other secretive corporate plutocrats at the time the Court was considering the Citizens United case. Two national organizations have extensive information about the justices' blatant disregard of basic ethics and are collecting petitions to hold them to account. CommonCause.org seeks a Justice Department investigation of the two and proposes that Supreme Court members be subjected to the Judicial Code of Conduct that applies to all other federal judges. RootsAction.org goes farther, calling for impeachment proceedings against Thomas for accepting gifts from participants in cases before him and for filing false financial reports.
5. Connect. It's not all bad news in Washington. Many members of Congress are pushing national policies to end or at least curtail the corrupting power of corporate political cash. It's important to have an inside-outside strategy on these policies, linking grassroots strength to those fighting inside for real reform. One of the best points of connection is the Progressive Caucus, co-chaired by Reps. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis and Raul Grijalva of Tucson. Find them at cpc.grijalva.house.gov/.
6. Confront. The time to get the attention of Congress critters is now, when they're running for office. Every candidate should be confronted politely but insistently on the corporate money issues: Citizens United, corporate personhood, public campaign funding, etc. Make appointments, attend their campaign events and town hall sessions, send queries and disseminate their responses as broadly as possible, even if all you get from them is gibberish.
7. Localize. All across the country, clean election coalitions have passed laws to give local and state candidates the alternative of using a public pool of money to finance their campaigns rather than having to kiss the ring of corporate interests. Learn about these successes and how you can launch a similar effort where you live by going to PubliCampaign.org.
Likewise, get information and inspiration from the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (poclad.org) and ReclaimDemocracy.org about communities that are restricting or outright rejecting the fiction of corporate personhood. From such small towns as Arcata, California, to cities like Pittsburgh, people are uniting to prohibit assertions of a corporate right to run over them. As Pittsburgh city council member Doug Shields said of a successful effort last November to ban natural gas fracking in his city, "It's about our authority as a community to decide, not corporations deciding for us."
8. Enjoy. Whatever you do, think fun: How could this be more humorous, more lively, more entertaining, more welcoming, more engaging and, therefore, more effective? As much as possible, turn your meetings, work sessions and events into parties with a little food and drink, music, videos, cartoons, puppets, skits, stunts, contests, stories and whatever else the group can think of.
Whether it's the Arab Spring or the American Autumn, democratic progress doesn't come on the winds of history, but on the shoulders of a determined people. Occupy Wall Street offers millions of strong shoulders with which to shove corporate money out of our politics and make "people power" more than an empty slogan. While the Constitution says "We the People," not We the Corporations, the people themselves must make that distinction real.
Jim Hightoweris a national author and radio commentator.