Top photo courtesy of Jenna Pope of Overpass Light Brigade
What is a Democracy Amendment?
A democracy amendment is an amendment to the US Constitution that would allow a government truly of, by, and for the people – not big corporations and the super-rich.
It’s becoming clearer every day that we are facing a crisis of democracy. On issues from A to Z, average American citizens are not represented by our elected officials. No matter who ends up in office, the system does not function to benefit us. Small businesses and regular individuals can’t compete against the huge multinational corporations and wealthy donors who exert enormous influence over the government, buying special treatment for themselves while slashing support for the rest of us and sending jobs overseas.
Government has never been perfect, but it hasn’t always been like this. Where can we trace the roots of this crisis? What is causing our democracy to crumble? Voters for a Democracy Amendment believe that two key ideas, enshrined in law over the years by the Supreme Court, are intertwined at the heart of the problem.
First, in a string of decisions including Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court gave corporations constitutional rights that our Founders intended only for human beings.
Using these rights, corporations have gotten our courts to overturn hundreds of laws protecting our health, safety, environment, and democracy. This is what can be thought of as a “corporate veto,” where corporations have the power to block democratically enacted laws that are in the public interest, simply because they might have an impact on profits. See the Constitutional Balance Sheet compiled by Greater Boston Move To Amend for more information about corporate constitutional rights.
Not-so-fun fact: the 14th Amendment was passed to protect newly freed slaves after the Civil War. In the first fifty years after its adoption, less than one half of one percent of 14th Amendment cases that came before the Supreme Court were actually aimed at securing “equal protection” for African Americans. The majority involved corporate lawyers seeking “equal protection” for their companies. (Source: Justice Hugo Black, 1938)
On top of that, many laws limiting campaign spending have been scuttled. This can be traced to a Supreme Court decision called Buckley v. Valeo, in which the Court ruled that spending money to influence an election is the equivalent of free speech, and cannot be limited to protect the integrity of our elections. After the recent Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, special interest money has flooded into our elections at exponential rates.
Researchers at Princeton looked closely at public policy enacted over two decades and found that the preferences of average Americans had no effect whatsoever on legislation, while the preferences of the rich and of influential interest groups did have clear effects. The researchers were forced to conclude that America resembled more of an oligarchy than a democracy.
These, then, are the twin problems that a Democracy Amendment would address: The rapidly ballooning influence of big money in our elections is cementing a system where lawmakers’ top priority, as a matter of professional survival, is dialing for dollars and attending secretive donor retreats where they take their cues on policy, drowning out the voices and preferences of ordinary citizens. And in the cases where government, at the local, state, or federal level, manages to pass legislation that reflects the will of the people and the good of our communities, these laws are under constant threat of being overturned as long as corporations hold the legal trump card of constitutional rights.
Just as colonists were not adequately represented by their government in the 1700s, ordinary citizens today have no seat at the table. Politicians spend the bulk of their time courting wealthy donors, and corporations use the Constitution to block the democratic process. Our aim is to return the control of government to "We the People."
In towns, cities, counties, and states across the country, people are calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would help create a genuine democracy. This amendment would address the two problems outlined above by declaring that
(1) rights protected under the Constitution are the rights of natural persons only and
(2) both Congress and the states may place limits on political contributions and spending.
A DEMOCRACY AMENDMENT WOULD...
(1) End the “corporate veto” of public interest laws
Corporations would no longer be able to get courts to overturn laws passed by democratically elected legislatures.
(2) Allow campaign finance limits
Congress and state legislatures could once again provide reasonable limits in campaign finance, ensuring fair elections. Billionaires should not have more influence on elections than the average voter.
WHY A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT?
An amendment to the Constitution is the only way for citizens to "overturn" decisions by the Supreme Court. A Democracy Amendment would not make specific laws regarding corporations or campaign finance. It would simply restore the sovereignty of "We the People," making it possible to pass new laws at the local, state, or federal level to protect the public interest and the integrity of our elections. Representative democracy would be allowed to work again.
THERE IS STRONG NATIONAL AND BIPARTISAN SUPPORT FOR A DEMOCRACY AMENDMENT
– 82% of Democrats, 72% of Republicans, and 84% of Independents oppose the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. (see here, here and here for older polling showing similar results)
– 66% of small businesses believe that Citizens United is bad for business.
– 16 states and more than 500 cities and towns have called for a constitutional amendment to restore democracy.
Winning a constitutional amendment is difficult but totally achievable. Every American generation has continued the fight to create a more perfect union, often by amending the Constitution: from the abolition of slavery, to the right of women to vote, to the guarantee that anyone old enough to fight in the military is also old enough to vote. Amendments happen when we recognize that the old system has failed in some way, and citizens across the political spectrum come together to demand a change.
This November in Massachusetts, voters in 19 districts will have the chance to join others across the country in making just such a demand. In 2012, local volunteers gathered signatures to put the question in front of voters in about 1/3 of the commonwealth. The question passed overwhelmingly in every single district where it appeared on the ballot. This year we are reaching new districts, building toward the goal of letting all of Massachusetts speak with a unified voice, making a loud and unambiguous call for a Democracy Amendment.