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Watch Out Plutocrats, the Progressive Pro-Democracy Movement Is Savvy and Gearing Up to Take on Citizens United

There's a sophisticated pushback against corporate power in the works.

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“There is a systemic problem here,” Lessig said, adding that the country's founders also wrestled with corruption. “The funders are not the people. There is a systemic solution. Make the funders the people.”

But Lessig wasn’t at the 28th Amendment conference to just push for public financing, although that was one solution raised that targeted a specific part of the process. He came to inspire 200 organizers, lawyers, scholars and media to push states to require that Congress convene a constitutional convention to deal with democracy issues. That tactic, more so than having legislatures tell Congress to draft an amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, will push Congress to act, Lessig said, as it did with the 17th Amendment, which made the U.S. Senate an elected body.

Lessig’s remarks launched a very different conversation from what was happening in reform circles just months ago, let alone since the mid-1990s when the last big burst of grassroots activism propelled several states to adopt public financing schemes. After the rise of the Tea Party in 2009, the Occupy movement in 2010, and hundreds of resolutions urging Congress to write an amendment to reverse Citizens United, a dozen amendments were introduced in Congress. But earlier this year, factions with different approaches were competing for Congress’ attention. Meanwhile, most constitutional scholars were silent. There was little new academic analysis of reformers’ ideas. And ex-corporate lawyers sympathetic to the movement’s goals rued its leaders and media champions seemed unwilling to take the discussion beyond bumper stickers.

That’s now changed in very substantive ways. What’s been brewing behind closed doors came into view at the 28th Amendment Conference. First was the recognition that at least two amendments are needed—one dealing with a runaway Supreme Court and a second dealing with constitutional speech rights awarded to business entities. There also was the recognition that Lessig’s constitutional convention could be a fantastic organizing tool to propel what already is sizeable grassroots activism to a new orbit. There was a sense that a do-everything approach includes pushing Congress, the executive branch and federal regulators to enact serious reforms now, under existing Supreme Court doctrine. And when it comes to parsing and drafting legal language for all these efforts, scholars are joining and refining the discussion, lifting it to new and more precise levels.

“You have a lot of different experts—progressive groups doing this, Republican groups doing that, and trans-partisan groups doing this and that,” said Lisa Graves, an attorney and executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy. Graves moderated a panel on what constitutional rights awarded by courts to corporations are, and are not, harming American democracy. “Overall, what you’re hoping to build is a movement for change that gets to a tipping point that enables a lot of more things to be possible.”

“This is a movement moment,” said Marge Baker, People for the American Way’s executive vice president. “We’ve come together loosely under the banner we’ve called United4ThePeople.org… But the one principle that unites these 135 organizations, with literally tens of millions of members across the country, is that we believe that this problem is so serious that it needs a constitutional remedy—or remedies.”

Not Just One Constitutional Amendment

Today’s democracy reform movement is best known by the two slogans seen at Occupy protests, grassroot efforts led by the Move To Amend coalition and like-minded groups and across the blogosphere—"Money is not speech" and "Corporations are not people."

The slogans are shorthand for two different legal issues and challenges, that, until now, many reformers blurred or sought to combine. The paradigm shift at the 28th Amendment conference was not just the conclusion that each should become its own amendment. As important, the analysis and discussion surrounding the goals and legal workings of each was growing and was more refined and politically astute than earlier this year.