The way to defeat the corrosive influence of money in politics is to take citizen action, a panel of political experts told an audience at Cal Poly on Monday night, arguing that the nation’s democracy is at stake if people don’t.
Nearly 500 people packed Spanos Theatre to listen to a discussion focusing on why the nation’s political system has been compromised by campaign finance spending, and what to do about it.
The forum included Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, former Federal Election Committee chairman Trevor Potter, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Hedrick Smith and San Luis Obispo activist, farmer and former actor William Ostrander.
“The average voter does not matter anymore,” Lessig said. “That’s because the government has been held hostage by funders. Politicians no longer can get anything done in reasonable way because policies get bent by those funding campaigns.
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“No sensible reform on any issue can be made until we fix how campaigns operate.” Monday’s talk kicked off Citizens Congress 2014, a weeklong symposium at The Cliffs Resort in Pismo Beach. That’s where Ostrander and leaders of advocacy groups aim to tackle the best methods of taking political action on campaign finance reform.
About 35 people are expected to attend the conference. Participants are paying $100 per day or $250 for the week.
Those who have registered include leaders from organizations such as Coalition for Open Democracy, Fund for the Republic and Public Citizen, Ostrander said, adding that panel members will also be in attendance.
Lessig said research has shown that national candidates depend primarily on benefactors who make up 0.05 percent of the population. He added that those candidates spend 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money to get elected, sacrificing time they could be using to learn about and make decisions on issues that impact constituents.
Echoing Lessig’s charge that the political system is in peril, Smith said the 1960s and 1970s saw a much wider distribution of wealth, whereas far fewer people now control most of America’s wealth.
At the beginning of Monday’s event, audience members were asked to vote on which major political issues they believed to be most important – including wealth distribution in America, closing corporate tax loopholes and controlling Wall Street power.
The majority of the audience picked closing the U.S. wealth gap.
Much of Monday’s talk focused on the Citizens United case in which the Supreme Court in 2010 granted spending power to corporations on political campaigns without a requirement to disclose identity.
The ability to former a SuperPAC, or an independent political action committee, allowed by the court’s decision led Lessig to help organize a SuperPAC that is currently attempting to finance the elections of candidates in five House of Representative seats who will push the cause of campaign finance reform.
Focusing on the Citizens United case, Potter cited staggering numbers in increased spending from outside sources – those who aren’t directly solicited or who work in conjunction with candidates.
Smith said that $7 billion was spent in the 2012 presidential election from outside sources in campaign finance versus $300 million in 2008 before the Citizens United ruling.
He said “dark money” from undisclosed sources accounted for 40 percent of campaign funding in the 2012 political election.
“Secret sources can threaten politicians with votes,” Potter said. “The minority of the American people control whether political action happens or doesn’t, based on what they want.” Potter said Ronald Reagan attended nine fundraisers in his 1984 presidential election year – all for other candidates because his race was publicly funded – while Barack Obama went to 222 in 2012.
Ostrander, who champions citizen advocacy, has proposed holding a march or national event to bring awareness to the issue of finance reform.
Speaking about the need for grassroots activism, Smith recalled that Martin Luther King Jr. was called “an outside agitator” when he spoke up for civil rights – but it was a moniker he embraced while others shied away from the notoriety.
Smith said that he remembered when King was a humble protester in overalls sitting in the street to advocate racial equality.
“He didn’t start out giving that speech in Washington (D.C.),” Smith said, referring to King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.“You have to start from somewhere, even here in San Luis Obispo. We need a new generation of outside agitators.”