Dr. Timothy Kuhner stopped by the Common Cause office to talk about his new book, Capitalism vs. Democracy. In part 3, we discuss a path forward for the movement to take back our democracy.
Common Cause: You’ve laid out what the problem is – what can we do about it?
Timothy Kuhner: The biggest thing is to get organized – groups like Common Cause are already doing a lot of work at the state and national level to make our system more democratic. And there’s a lot of work to be done, but the biggest priority is that we need to amend the Constitution.
That’s going to have to happen if we want meaningful, predictable, long-term progress. There are very few reforms on money in politics that are constitutional in the house the Supreme Court has built. So long as money remains speech, corporations remain people, and all the motives for reform keep being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, very little can be done.
So in the long term we need an amendment, but in the short term, there’s a lot of fights going on – such as maintaining and improving disclosure, corporate law reform efforts, preventing big spenders from writing dark money off on their taxes, and preserving individual contribution limits, which is the most important piece of the system left.
CC: What else can individual voters do?
TK: I would pressure my representatives at the local, state, and federal level to make money in politics a big part of their platform. Tell them that’s what matters to you. Our votes have been diminished, but they still matter – if we demand that candidates take a stand on money in politics, if money in politics becomes number one instead of number 15 on the list of the most salient issues, candidates and officeholders will have to listen.
You can also join or start the movement in your community – about 600 cities and 16 states have passed resolutions calling for an amendment. Millions of people have signed petitions and asked their lawmakers to amend the Constitution, and if you haven’t already, you should too.
You can add your voice to that chorus, and you can also support reforms that work in the current system, like the Government for the People Act proposed by Rep. John Sarbanes to empower smaller individual donors.
CC: What would winning this fight mean for our future?
TK: Money in politics is connected to all the other issues folks care about – environmental protection, economic opportunity, public education – because all of those fights are being routed through a corrupt system.
If you can reform that system, then you can have those debates on a level playing field, with everyone’s voices being heard. That would be a real democracy – whether you win or lose, it’d be fair.
Another related concern is rising economic inequality as reported by economists such as Thomas Piketty. Presently in the United States, the richest 10% of the population owns 70% of all national wealth. The bottom 50% of the US population owns just 2% of national wealth. That’s the sort of inequality we haven’t seen since earlier times that we recognize today as tremendously unjust – the industrial revolution period, robber barons, even feudalism. The laws and policies that sustain and create tremendous economic inequality tend to be those sought out by the donor and spender class – that .4% or less of the US population controlling political finance. If you can reform money in politics, then you also stand a chance of reforming capitalism and restoring its integrity.
CC: Are you hopeful?
TK: I take a long term view. I’m hopeful because American history is the story of huge social struggles like this one – it’s the story of people coming together to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. The only thing that would make me cynical and depressed is if people don’t wake up to what’s happening – as long as we’re asleep and unconscious about that, the struggle won’t ever be won.
But I’m optimistic because people are waking up and making these connections. Who stands in our way? Only 5 justices, a couple thousand big spenders, a few free market intellectuals justifying a plutocratic system, and some cynical officeholders fighting to keep the big money supply lines open. As more people realize what’s going on, they won’t be able to hold power for very long. It always takes a massive movement to throw off an oppressive power structure like this, and our movement is getting stronger every day.
Office: Common Cause National