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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Using a Constitutional Amendment vs. ‘Citizens United’ — to Start a Movement

At The New Republic, Dissent Co-Editor Michael Kazin makes a cogent argument for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and spare America future campaign finance debacles. Of course none of several proposed amendments can pass, as Kazin acknowledges, since that would require a two-thirds majority just to get out of congress and into the state legislatures. In addition, notes Kazin, “as long as Sheldon Adelson, the brothers Koch, and their ilk are eager to finance some politicians and destroy others, no proposed amendment of this kind will get beyond the agitational stage.”
But Kazin, author of “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation,” makes a persuasive case that such an amendment could be very helpful in starting a serious movement for campaign finance reform:

But that drawback can be turned into a virtue. Agitation has, in fact, been the initial purpose of many proposed amendments, including those that keep failing (like that which would require the federal government to balance its budget) to those that are now unassailable (like the 13th, which abolished slavery.) The idea of altering America’s foundational document can give focus and legitimacy to movements which need to show that the people are truly on their side. In 1994, the balanced budget amendment became the centerpiece of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America and helped conservative Republicans present themselves as tribunes of common sense. Of course, if enacted, it would have forced the government to slash spending in 2009 instead of increase it, turning the Great Recession into a second Great Depression. An amendment is good to campaign with before it has a chance to become law–and even if it never should.
For prime examples of amendments that helped movements grow, one can look back a century ago, to the aptly named Progressive Era. From 1913 to 1920, four major amendments were quickly passed and ratified–the 16th establishing the income tax; the 17th creating the popular election of senators; the 18th, prohibition of the business in alcoholic beverages, and the 19th women’s suffrage. Each victory capped a grassroots struggle that had lasted for decades and, for much of that time, had seemed rather hopeless. Suffragists and prohibitionists–whose ranks often overlapped–had begun organizing in the 1840s. The groundswell for an income tax, which, at first, only the richest citizens had to pay, and the push to democratize the election of Senators both grew out of the anti-monopoly fervor of the late 19th century….

As for the political psychology behind those amendment campaigns, Kazin adds “Each proposed amendment helped progressive organizers to focus the attention of the press, to galvanize supporters of their cause, and to unify campaigns that otherwise were fragmented by local desires and diverse constituencies.”
Kazin notes a pervasive reluctance to champion constitutional amendments among modern liberals and the failure of alternative approaches to get much traction. Yet, he argues that, “To shake up a system that both parties have long abetted and the High Court has graced will require a massive effort by angry outsiders and those members of the political class who share their disgust. To transform that system will require having a true alternative in mind. Advocating for a constitutional amendment could aid both purposes…”
Where all other reforms have clearly failed to generate much excitement, the very boldness of a constitutional amendment just might be the tonic that revitalizes the progressive base. As Kazin concludes, “the end result might even breathe some new life into that 225-year old promise to “promote the general Welfare.”

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