Regardless of what anyone thinks about the Occupy Wall Street movement, there is at least one idea the movement embodies that I would hope everyone can get behind: the idea that our system is badly broken.
Occupy Wall Street is ultimately about wanting something different than the bloated, repetitive, greedy, self-serving, phony system that we have.
Can anyone honestly say that the way Wall Street functions or the way the American political system operates is fair, effective and beneficial to our society?
It’s no wonder a massive, growing number of people have become cynical and apathetic toward American politics — the system is corrupt and, perhaps, seems hopeless.
But while the Occupy Wall Street movement may contain a disparate smattering of viewpoints and agendas, what the movement has shown is the sincere hope for something different.
This is the final installment of my series on the Occupy Wall Street movement. In the past four installments, I have tried to meticulously detail many of the problems with Wall Street and Washington. This time I want to examine what the average American can do about it.
If you don’t realize that practically every facet of American democracy has been bought and sold to corporate interests then you simply aren’t paying attention.
The voices of average Americans are drowned out by torrential monsoons of corporate cash in the form of lobbying and campaign contributions that are deluging the political process.
One of the most important goals for fixing American democracy has to be to limit the power corporations exert over our political process.
There’s nothing wrong with a corporation in and of itself. Almost every form of business is incorporated under U.S. law in some form or another.
However, the problem is that the interests of the largest corporations operating in America do not necessarily reflect the interests of the average American or the community in which she or he lives.
A corporation is beholden to the bottom line. Generally speaking, a corporation must do everything in its power to maximize profits and appease its shareholders regardless if the pursuit of such aims does not take into account what is best for the community at large.
And let’s not kid ourselves — corporate lobbying is nothing more than legalized bribery, plain and simple.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, from 1998 to 2010, lobbyists spent over $32 billion to influence our political system. And this figure does not even include campaign contributions.
Does anyone really think corporations and special interests groups are spending billions of dollars on politicians and expecting nothing in return? They spend the money because it gets results, such as members of Congress voting certain ways on bills or drafting specific legislation.
That’s when the lobbyists aren’t actually writing the bills themselves. Time and again, corporate lobbyists are directly writing the legislation designed to deregulate their industries. It’s time for this to stop.
And when it comes to campaign contributions, we have entered a time in American politics when more money than ever is spent to buy politicians. The candidates with the most money almost always win.
Over 90 percent of congressional elections are won by the candidate who raised the most money for his or her campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and in the 2010 midterm election, almost $4 billion was spent by congressional candidates alone.
I think almost everyone on both sides of the aisle would agree — whether it be Democrat, Republican, independent, Tea Partier or Occupy Wall Street protestor — corporate and special interest money is a crisis that has completely corrupted the democratic process.
Remove the money
One idea that has been proposed is to either completely remove or at least limit the flow of corporate money into our political process.
Even Teddy Roosevelt once said, “All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law.”
Unfortunately this change would be extremely difficult to achieve, but the nonpartisan group Free Speech for the People has proposed a constitutional amendment to do just this and, so far, has gathered 250,000 signatures.
Senator Tom Udall (D – Colorado) has also proposed a constitutional amendment to limit corporate and special interest money in our elections. A petition in support of this amendment has gathered 122,000 signatures so far.
However, part of the problem with this idea is that many people consider giving money to politicians to be a form of free speech — even the ACLU supports this notion.
In the 1975 Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo, the court did, in fact, rule that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech.
I can see certain situations in which the act of giving money could be interpreted as freedom of expression, such as donating money to a cause or a charity you support.
However, I can also see a scenario in which the law would restrict such an expression.
For example, I certainly cannot claim it is my First Amendment right to funnel money to a terrorist organization such as al Qaeda.
The simple fact is that when money exchanges hands it enters the world of commerce more than the world of expression, and the law can and does place certain restrictions on such transactions. So, why not draft either legislation or a constitutional amendment to put limits on campaign money?
End corporate personhood
We run into another problem with this idea. Under current U.S. laws, corporations are considered to be legal persons with constitutional protections such as free speech.
I won’t go into the long history of corporate personhood came to be (though you can read what I have written on the subject in the past), but the courts have created precedent time and time again to suggest a corporation has the same rights that natural living persons have under the 14th Amendment.
The 14th Amendment was originally adopted after the Civil War to ensure the equal protection and citizenship of former slaves, but it has since been used in a far overreaching manner to protect the interests of corporations.
And in keeping with this notion that corporations are people, in 2009, the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC gave corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money campaigning on behalf of candidates.
A growing number of people are beginning to find this notion of corporate personhood absurd.
Ending corporate personhood is another issue that could be solved with a constitutional amendment. In fact the same constitutional amendment proposed by Free Speech for the People and the one proposed by Sen. Udall seek to do just this: end corporate personhood and limit corporate spending.
Granted, constitutional amendments are not easy things to achieve. They require broad support, but I think in the face of such a defective political system, the American people would be more than willing to support such ideas in order to restore democracy back into the hands of the people.
So, we can start by calling our Congress members to tell them we want an end to the ridiculous notion of corporate personhood and the corporate dominance of the democratic process.
Call to Action
But it’s also time for the Occupy Wall Street movement to take a page out of the Tea Party book and start organizing to get specific candidates elected who share their interests.
Protesting is all well and good, but if it doesn’t result in political actions then it hasn’t accomplished much more than instilling some good ideas into the American zeitgeist.
People are slowly waking up to the fact that their democracy has been sold to the highest bidder, and the Occupy Wall Street movement has been largely successful in highlighting this.
You don’t have to join the protestors across the country and camp out in city parks to agree with the notion that our American political process has become a bloated, corrupt system that favors the interests of the super-rich and largest corporations.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has become a cultural phenomenon, a clarion call to evolve our ideas and bring badly needed reform to a system that has been slowly choking the life out of the American Dream for over 40 years.
The main thing we can do as average Americans is to simply pay attention, get involved and start demanding a crop of political candidates who are not beholden to the interests of Wall Street, massive corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
There are plenty of reasons to be cynical when it comes to American politics. But it’s time to turn that cynicism into optimism. American democracy is certainly broken, but it is not beyond repair.
And that’s what the Occupy Wall Street movement is really about, and I hope that’s a message with which we can all agree regardless of race, creed or political ideology.
W. Paul Smith