Lyle Hyde, Illinois Coalition to Overturn Citizens United

I am an ordinary citizen who values his privacy and has never been inclined to political activism. My personal roots are conservative. However, in an era already given over to brazen corruption of both our elections and the government by big money, the Supreme Court’s January 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision was the final straw that moved me to action. In my opinion, that outrageously undemocratic decision, along with other related judicial rulings, is directly contributing to the country’s decline into an oligarchy of concentrated wealth.

So I decided that I had to get involved, both for myself and, more importantly, for my grandchildren’s birthright to a living democracy, a birthright that I now believe is in grave danger.

Our elections are flooded by a Niagara of big money dedicated to the private interests of super rich individuals and top-level executives who control large corporate treasuries. Until this extreme undue influence is reversed, the voices of ordinary citizens on all other pressing problems, including climate change, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, universal health care, tax justice, infrastructure, Wall Street reform, collective bargaining, personal privacy, the costs of empire, and others, will continue to be drowned out.

Citizens United is radical because it strikes at the foundation of democracy by stripping political sovereignty from the People and handing it over to an infinitesimal minority of the electorate, by declaring, in every practical sense, that the use of money in elections is free speech protected by the First Amendment. Further, it declared that corporations and other artificial entities, having constitutional rights that rightfully belong to natural persons, can unload a torrent of cash into our elections and ultimately buy government policy. In other words, he or she who has the big money makes the rules we all must live by, the public interest be darned.

Each citizen has an individual right to free speech. But those who defend Citizens United refuse to recognize the power of individuals with great personal wealth, or who have access to great wealth, to overwhelm the voices of ordinary citizens by effectively buying our elections and seizing the public microphone, therein controlling, not democratizing, free speech. They appeal to ideals of equal individual constitutional liberties while refusing to recognize the power of big money to corrupt democracy and create inequality of citizenship by assuring that only the very rich and the most powerful of our citizens are heard.

Our country has confronted this issue before. The issue is the eternal conflict between concentrated economic power and political equality in a democracy. It is not new. In 1907, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Tillman Act, which prohibited direct donations from corporate treasuries to individual political candidates and campaigns. Roosevelt was not anti-corporation, but he understood that corporate money used for political purposes is a major source of corruption in our democracy, and he had a sufficiently strong sense of public decency and fair play to fight it.

Today, we are fighting a modern version of the same problem of big money and corruption that Roosevelt faced a century ago.

I began by organizing a Move to Amend house party in the Autumn of 2011. Since then I have met dozens of wonderful people deeply committed to restoring democracy in our country and who have provided needed practical guidance. 

With the help of Common Cause Illinois, Public Citizen, MoveOn, Illinois PIRG, and other not-for-profits, our grassroots coalition, the Illinois Coalition to Overturn Citizens United (and related rulings and antidemocratic legal doctrines), passed a resolution through Chicago’s City Council last July. Similar resolutions passed in other counties and townships across Illinois. 

Next, a November 2012 Chicago ballot question calling for a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed by a three-to-one margin. Again, similar ballot questions succeeded across Illinois, by an average 72 percent majority, transcending party affiliation and geographic location. 

We believe that returning political sovereignty to the People is not a Democrat or Republican issue, not a rural or urban or upstate or downstate issue. It is an American issue. At one point last year, one third of all contributions to super PACs came from 10 individuals, and two-thirds from about 100. That is why, we are working hard to make our movement nonpartisan.

On May 31, 2013, the Illinois House of Representatives passed our PRAIRIE (People’s Rights and Integrity Restored in Elections) Resolution calling for a 28th Amendment by a vote of 80-36. We are extremely proud that nine Republicans voted for this resolution. They listened to their constituents. It is past time to return political sovereignty to the People. To fight back, we need to build broad coalitions that are prepared to persevere.

We must take back our democracy ourselves. There is really no other meaningful choice.

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