I just sat down for a chat with Michael Olneck, Professor Emeritus of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who now devotes himself to ridding our country of the blight that is the Citizens United decision. Whether you identify as Republican, Green, Independent, or Democrat, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision affects you.
Here’s why you should care if you don’t already:
1. What is Wisconsin Move to Amend’s focus?
The principal focus of Move to Amend groups in Wisconsin has been, and will continue to be, working to pass local resolutions in support of a United States Constitutional Amendment which would establish (1) that only human beings – not corporations, limited liability companies, unions, nonprofit organizations, or similar associations – are endowed with Constitutional rights; and (2) that money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech. So far, over fifty communities in Wisconsin have passed such resolutions, and a number are pending for the April, 2015 elections.
Other work that Move to Amend groups support include (1) efforts to place an advisory referendum resolution on the Wisconsin state ballot, (2) citizen lobbying to gain the support of state legislators for our Amendment, and (3) public education about the ways in which corporations having Constitutional rights, and failing to limit political contributions and expenditures, corrupts democracy. We are planning to encourage efforts in communities which have passed Move To Amend resolutions to follow-up on their referenda success, and to turn their support into commitment to enlist the active support of many, and to press the cause with political officials and in public fora.
2. In addition to Citizens United, have there been any subsequent Supreme Court decisions or legislation that has set the U.S. back in terms of campaign-finance?
The answer is an emphatic “yes”! In one case from June, 2011, which is not well known, McComish v. Bennett, the Supreme Court declared that a “matching fund” provision in Arizona’s Clean Election Act was unconstitutional. The “matching fund” gave publicly-funded candidates an increment in funding when their privately-funded opponents accumulated more than the publicly-funded candidate initially received. The Court’s majority reasoned that the increment to the publicly-funded candidate “chilled” the free speech of contributors to the private candidate because they would be less likely to make their contributions if these triggered additional funds for their favored candidate’s opponent.
In McCutcheon v. FEC, in April of 2014, the Court declared that limiting the aggregate
amount which individuals could contribute to candidates was unconstitutional. Individual limitations of on direct contributions to candidates continued to be allowed, although contributions to PACs are unlimited.
There has been a flurry of legislation and suits in Wisconsin and elsewhere that would
raise or abolish the limitations on contributions to candidates, and there is even an effort to permit businesses to contribute directly to candidates. The amount which can be given to PACs is already unlimited.
3. Based on how many resolutions have been passed nationwide (and in Wisconsin), there is clearly public support for amending the amount of money that can be donated toward political campaigns. Why have things gotten worse rather than improved? What can people do to make real change happen?
Two reasons. First, when the courts have spoken, in the short run, it does not matter what people want. If something is declared to violate the Constitution, then legislation cannot be passed that violates that holding. Which is actually a good thing. I would not have wanted, for example, to have put to a vote the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring school segregation by race unconstitutional.
But, that means if you do not like a decision there are only two ways to change it. One is
to amend the Constitution. The other is to hope that a later Supreme Court might find reasons to overturn the earlier decision.
A second reason why progress toward an Amendment is not proceeding faster is that office-holders in both major parties are pretty content with the present system. Republicans are trying to make this appear to be a partisan issue, so are strong in their opposition to change. Democrats are not united for change, and unless there is change, are no less desirous of having limits on contributions raised.
4. What is your day job? Have you always been involved in progressive groups?
I am a retired faculty member in educational policy studies and sociology from the U.W.-Madison, where I began teaching in 1975. I retired so I could “do my work,” i.e. my research and writing, but became so angry and distraught by Citizens Uniteds that I began working in Move to Amend.
I was involved very modestly in activities in the Civil Rights Movement, and, in 1964,
after graduating from high school in Fairfield, Connecticut, started something called the Fairfield Committee for the Support of the Mississippi Project, which was to raise funds to support a friend doing voting rights work in Clarksdale, Mississippi. During Vietnam, I participated in any number of anti-war marches, and was on the student strike committee at Harvard after the Cambodia invasion. Here, I helped lead the faculty effort in around 1989 or 1990 to remove ROTC from campus until the military stopped excluding homosexuals from service.
But, it is important to stress that while I identify as a “progressive,” Move to Amend is
not a “progressive” group in the usual sense of that word. There are many, many conservatives who have voted in support of our Amendment. Ending domination of government by corporations and the wealthy is a “trans-partisan” cause.
5. Who are your current progressive “heroes”?
I don’t know that I have “heroes.” I am very supportive of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
6.With so many different causes out there, why fight the Citizens United decision?
While I have always contributed financially to “good” causes, I only devote time when I
somehow get exceptionally personally offended by something. I felt that Citizens United was ludicrously offensive in its logic, and would be unusually dangerous in its consequences. Moreover, I believe that the government being in the thrall of corporate and moneyed interests is a fundamental, underlying, prior cause of the problems to which other groups are devoted, e.g., climate change, and vast inequality in incomes.
7. How can people get more involved?
I think individuals should learn as much as possible as they can about the issues of
corporate personhood and money in politics, and about the court cases that have led to the present situation. Some of those cases were decided long before Citizens United.
Good titles to read include:
- Thom Hartmann, Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became “People” – And How You Can Fight Back ;
- Jeffrey D. Clements, Corporations Are Not People: Reclaiming Democracy from Big Money and Global Corporations;
- Lawrence Lessig, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It; and
- John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America .
An excellent source for discussion and primary sources is the Amendment Gazette, in addition to Move To Amend’s Wisconsin-based website which has a lot of material on the issues, proposals, and how to take action. If you’re not in Wisconsin, check out Move To Amend’s national site here. For those of you in the southern Wisconsin area, come to one of our regular meetings, which are every second and fourth Tuesday at Sequoya Library in Madison.
If you’d like to speak directly with Michael about his efforts, email him to set up a time to talk.