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100 Proof Politics Op-Ed

Trojan Elephant: When Citizens United Attacks

More than Tea Parties & Mama Grizzlies, last year’s election will be remembered in history as an electoral atrocity perpetrated by the Citizens United v. FEC decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. For Progressives looking for answers post-election, Citizens United is the elephant in the room.

This week is the one year anniversary of this landmark decision that, boiled down into its essence, allows any organization or company to spend unlimited dollars on TV ads in the final weeks of federal elections.

Snuck into the gates of our American democracy under the guise of 1st Amendment free speech, the trap was sprung in 2010 with millions of dollars of attack ads targeting vulnerable Congressional candidates in a televised October surprise of historic proportions. The devastating consequences range from a lost Democratic majority to the very real prospect of a loss of American self-determination.

With conservative institutions lining up to support the Citizens United suit (Chamber of Commerce and NRA to name a few), it should have clear from the start that the right-wing was up to no good. When the conservative activist judges on the Supreme Court handed down their 5-4 decision, Karl Rove and his cabal of conservative political operatives quickly sprang into action.

Seemingly overnight, Republican allies embraced the new playbook and funneled millions of dollars in anonymous donations into these brand new conservative organizations, with wonderfully euphemistic names such as “American Crossroads”, “60+ Association”, “Center for Individual Freedom”, & of course, “Citizens United”.

While conservative groups seemed to be anticipating it (wink, wink Scalia), the strategic value of Citizens United was completely lost on the Democratic side (shocking, I know). In a gesture that was equivalent to ‘opening the gates of the city’, some liberal and progressive organizations (ACLU & AFL-CIO to name a few) even supported the case and then did not bother to effectively utilize the newly available capacities.

Amazingly, the Democratically-controlled Congress simultaneously failed to pass a law requiring donor transparency (DISCLOSE Act) or set up an independent expenditure infrastructure to compete with conservatives on TV (except for a noble last-minute attempt by some Progressives to create a ‘firewall’ around salvageable districts). In an act of striking cowardice, Democrats do not even vote on any electoral reform that would retain the century-old firewall between corporate money and public elections nor do they even make a passing glance at the much bolder Fair Elections Now Act (FENA).

In the top 10 of independent expenditures in 2010, 7 groups are conservative (or Republican) and 50% of these did not exist prior to 2010. Conservatives turned a $40 million deficit in 2008 into a $100 million advantage in 2010, reversing the typical independent expenditure dominance by liberal issue advocacy groups. Out of $350 million spent on independent expenditures, over $302 million is spent on TV ads, the majority of which were scathingly negative attack ads by conservative “issue advocacy” groups (If you hate negative attack ads, then you really hate Citizens United). The results of the 2010 elections are a direct result of these independent expenditures.

Never was an act of political cowardice so swiftly rewarded with the promise of electoral defeat. Congress goes from 255 Democrats & 179 Republicans to 190 Democrats & 242 Republicans in one election. The Democrats in the Senate hang on by a thread, which inevitably will be lost in 2012 according to the current common sense. This Congress paid for what they got, and let it be known that cowardice has its consequences.

Now, we live with the aftermath of the electoral carnage created when Citizens United attack. Only one year later, the devastating consequences are obvious: a Republican Speaker of the House (makes me all weepy), every member of Congress is on notice they can be electorally assaulted by any offended special interest (to the tune of millions), and a Presidential election that will be determined by unlimited anonymous donations funneled into non-stop negative attack ads (Fired up! Ready to go!).

This Trojan Elephant is still roaming freely inside the gates of our American democracy, destroying every last sentiment of self-determination left among the American population. In a country where unlimited private contributions are legally allowed, it is not long before citizens reject the notion that their votes control the country’s system of elections. Votes must once again become the primary determinate of U.S. elections, not dollars.

Money is property, not speech. Corporations are property, not citizens. We, the people, must get private money out of our public elections. On January 21st, the one year anniversary of this despicable judicial coup, spread the word and stand united with American citizens everywhere to call for the reversal of the Citizens United decision.

This op-ed cross-posted from DailyKos.com on 01/18/11. Join the conversation on this topic by clicking here.

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