I've been going door-to-door canvassing, and it's not that bad — really. It's actually kind of fun. But only because I've found a way to break through people's cynicism.
No wonder people are cynical. Crashing from the sky-high hopes of two years ago, people are worried about jobs, the economy and their own uncertain futures, about the wars we're bogged down in and the threats to our planet. They don't like where America is headed, don't like most politicians or candidates, and are often uncertain whether their vote even matters. But when I talked about the takeover of our politics by destructive corporate interests, culminating in the barrage of anonymous attack ads unleashed by the Supreme Court's ghastly Citizens United decision, they quickly became willing to listen.
So I'm delighted the Democrats are finally hitting back at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other Republican front groups for dumping millions of dollars of untraceable corporate contributions into the election, with the total likely to exceed $300 million. But since Democrats haven't exactly been innocent of taking special interest money in the past, we, ordinary citizens, need to be the ones driving this issue. We need to make the buying of our democracy the salient issue of the coming election and beyond, because it affects everything else that we need to change.
So how do we do this in the few remaining weeks before the elections? We need to talk about the ads of all the front groups from the Chamber of Commerce to Karl Rove's American Crossroads and the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity. But we also need to highlight the justices who overruled a century of precedent to enact Citizens United. And we need to talk about how Republican Senators have stood in unison to prevent requiring corporate interests to at least put their names on their ads.
From what I can tell, most Americans are at most vaguely aware of the DISCLOSE Act, the transparency legislation that a Republican filibuster blocked by a single vote. When they do find out, they're outraged because anonymous attack ads are an affront to even the barest standards of fairness, whatever one's political beliefs. In fact, Republican leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Boehner have long argued that so long as people knew who was paying for campaign ads, there was no need to regulate them through campaign finance reform or counterbalance them with public financing. "We ought to have full disclosure," Mr. Boehner said in 2007, "full disclosure of all of the money that we raise and how it is spent. And I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant." Yet since Citizens United opened the floodgates for monied interests to drown out the rest of our voices, Republican leaders and their key allies have done everything they can to foster anonymous and untraceable attacks from the shadows.
Frustrated as voters are with the state of America, including with the Democrats' own frequent capitulation to corporate interests, most still don't want our government to become the wholly owned property of BP, EXXON, AIG, Goldman Sachs, Verizon, and all the other corporations (including foreign ones) who can now buy our elections without people even knowing they're involved.
As ordinary citizens we have to do our part by knocking on doors, making phone calls and talking to friends, neighbors and coworkers who may be discontented with their current representatives but would draw the line at furthering the total capture of our democracy by the most powerful economic interests on the planet. Or at least they would if we gave them the chance to have a conversation. But we can't just leave the issue up to the candidates.
We also need to tackle the issue beyond November. Public financing of campaigns would help immensely, using the model of $5 contributions and public matching funds that's worked wonderfully in Maine, Vermont and Arizona. This model remains legal even under the new Supreme Court rules and would reduce the corporate influence on both parties. While the Republicans are the current recipients of massive business dollars, the Democrats have also been influenced and their policies corrupted by them — as when Senators like Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln took massive dollars from health care interests, and then used the threat of joining a Republican filibuster to vastly water down the original House health care reform bill.
Public financing can also complement a push to reverse Citizens United through Congressional legislation, grassroots organizing and perhaps a constitutional amendment. But for now, we need to focus on whether those running to represent us at least recognize our right to know who is trying to buy our votes. The political allegiances are clear from the DISCLOSE Act. If we work well enough at explaining why the money matters, it could tip race after close race, and help us begin to rein in the power of unaccountable greed.
Paul Loeb is the author of "Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times" and "The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear." See http://www.paulloeb.org.