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What if Citizens United Actually United the Citizens?

This past week saw a flurry of progressive victories that could upset the conventional wisdom about a post–Citizens United world.

 The following article first appeared on the Web site of the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for its email newsletters.

After a long, dark period of stagnant progressive momentum and pay-to-play politics, this week saw a flurry of progressive victories that could upset the conventional wisdom about a post– Citizens United world.

This week’s  announcement by Harry Reid that the Senate is postponing the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) vote would have been almost unimaginable as recently as a week ago, when PIPA and its House counterpart, SOPA (the Stop On-line Piracy Act), were considered done deals. Only a handful of disgruntled geeks stood in the way of an industry power grab that would have blessed online censorship and stifled innovation. But the bills’ promoters failed to anticipate the power of “Blackout Wednesday” to popularize the outrage. Suddenly, it wasn’t just geeks. Congress started fielding calls from people unable to sell couches on Craigslist and harried parents of students desperate to consult Wikipedia for school papers. Thus sounded the death knell for the bills.

While the tactical decision to pull down popular sites in protest of these bills were tailored to the Internet blackout bills, the other two major victories this week—the rejection of the massive Keystone oil pipeline and the submission of 1 million signatures to recall union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—were also made possible by fusing old-school community organizing with innovative netroots strategies.

Going into the week, news was dominated by the proliferation of political ads in early primary states, many of which would have been illegal prior to  Citizens United. There is no denying that decision’s impact, on almost every issue: spending legalized by the  Citizens United decision was partly responsible for the Walker victory in 2010, and moving forward  Citizens United–enabled ads will be full of messages about Obama’s rejection of Keystone. Progressives have continually highlighted the ruling as a low point in a campaign world that comes with a multimillion-dollar entry fee. It’s true that  experts warn that the proliferation of ads could result in voter disengagement.

But what if the net result of  Citizens United is a realization by progressive groups that financial competition is futile, one that prompts altered strategies that play to progressive strengths? In the two years after the  Citizens Uniteddecision, we've seen a renewed commitment to deep organizing and innovative rapid response that is threatening corporate-backed electeds and industry-promoted legislation alike.

Take the Internet censorship bills: the smug overreach of these industry-backed bills united both poles of the political spectrum and new media companies in an unprecedented wave of online activism that turned the tide and left both bills gasping for life on the eve of their vote. Google, a leading industry opponent, launched its first ever online petition, a move that netted it a staggering  7 million signatures. Websites as far-ranging as  Wikipedia and I Can Haz Cheezburger? went dark on Wednesday to protest the infringement on their rights. Users expecting to laugh at cats instead learned of the imminent threat, and these collective actions popularized the outrage.

The same day, the president announced his decision to comply with a State Department recommendation to reject the Keystone Pipeline. The pipeline—replete with catastrophic climate impacts and powerless to deliver the jobs its promoters promised—was all but signed when a small band of committed climate activists mounted a week of direct action at the White House last summer. As the civil disobedience peaked, groups quickly followed up with sustained organizing of Obama volunteers and donors, who publicly committed to withhold re-election support if the pipeline was approved. In the final tally, there were over 1000 arrests, more than one million petition signatures and public statements flooded the White House, and close to 40,000 calls were made to Congress opposing the pipeline in one day.

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