The other night at dinner, my almost 21-year-old stepson questioned the existence of hegemonic forces, processes by which a dominant group in society exerts control by influencing and shaping societal norms. I challenged him: “What about corporate power?” He responded, “That’s not hegemony. Corporations are run by individuals.”
My stepson is a smart, analytical young adult who has great pride in his country. Yet I believe he’s still clinging to the ideals that America was founded upon, not the reality that it has become — what journalist Chris Hedges calls “the illusion of America.”
I was a different sort of believer at age 21. A recent graduate of a small, elite liberal arts college, I stumbled into the belly of the beast as a financial analyst with Drexel Burnham Lambert on Wall Street. For two years I served corporate America as I calculated financial returns from mergers and acquisitions leveraged buyouts and initial public offerings. A premature midlife crisis launched me into the nonprofit sector. I began working on economic justice issues like livable wage initiatives and progressive tax policy campaigns while I donated to to grassroots organizations that challenged oppression and privilege. Yet I’m embarrassed to say I never really paused to consider, much less act on, the deep interconnection between economic justice and democracy.
The 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which affirmed corporate personhood, was a wake-up call about how corporations threaten democracy. The Occupy movement that followed helped our country finally confront what had been building for decades: extreme concentration of wealth and the entanglement of money and politics.
Last week I heard a talk by Richard Kirsch, author of the newly released study entitled “Reclaiming Democracy: A Strategy for Advancing Comprehensive Reforms in the Influence of Money on Politics in the United States.” According to Kirsch, an economy that works for everyone requires a government that works for everyone. And you can’t have a government that works for everyone at the same time that it’s beholden to wealthy campaign contributors and corporations. It’s that simple.
Reform, however, is anything but simple. While Kirsch recognizes the popular appeal of overturning Citizens United through a constitutional amendment, he also believes the chances of success are remote. His paper outlines a series of alternative policy solutions, first and foremost of which is public financing of elections. He calls on activists working on different dimensions of the progressive agenda to take the long view and create a common narrative for reform in money and politics.
Before Occupy, it seemed economic justice champions and proponents of campaign finance reform rarely intersected. Economic justice activists talked about poverty, affordable housing and the social safety net; campaign finance reformers talked about regulating campaign spending, limiting campaign contributions and requiring transparency in campaign donations.
While progressives across the board have long understood the importance of campaign finance reform, the issue has tended to inspire more yawns than action. Today, those who care about money in politics have an opportunity — no, an imperative — to stop talking about campaign finance reform in a vacuum and start talking about democracy, jobs and the collapsing middle class.
Corporate power has our government, our media, our universities and our healthcare system in a vise grip. It will never permit real reform. It’s going to take a populist movement for that. Let’s get going.