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Answer Koch money with people power

We need robust grass-roots institutions to save our democracy from billionaires

March 25, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Jan. 26, the right-wing political organization Freedom Partners unveiled a staggering $889 million budget leading up to the 2016 presidential election. The conservative coalition, led by Charles Koch and David Koch, plans to spend the money on right-wing candidates and policy infrastructure.

The two major parties’ presidential nominees in 2016 are expected to spend close to $1 billion each. (Both parties spent a little more than $1 billion apiece in 2012.) Politico described the Freedom Partners’ projected expenditure as “a historic sum that in many ways would mark Charles and David Koch and their fellow conservative megadonors as more powerful than the official Republican Party.”

How can voters reclaim their government in this new age of election buying?

Campaign finance reform will undoubtedly be essential. But it will be difficult to legislate, given the increasingly partisan nature of the debate around such policies. In addition to pushing for campaign finance reform, voters need to support collective organizations that allow people to pool their resources, express their political aspirations and outmaneuver billionaires through grass-roots organizing.

Defeating Citizens United

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision greatly increased the power of megadonors such as the Koch brothers. President Barack Obama, who has long opposed the ruling, appears to prefer overturning it by constitutional amendment. “I would love to see some constitutional process that would allow us to actually regulate campaign spending the way we used to and maybe even improve it,” he said in a recent interview with Vox.

But constitutional amendments are notoriously difficult to pass. Doing so requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate and the approval of at least 38 state legislatures. Building national momentum for such a campaign will take a long time.

However, there are options at the state level. New York state’s now foreshortened Moreland Commission put forward several suggestions for regulating campaign donations and public financing. New York City already uses a public financing system, in which candidates can tap into city funds to multiply small donations from people with modest incomes. This is a significant counterweight to megadonors. Other municipalities — such as Seattle, Maryland’s Howard County and Buffalo, New York — are considering similar public financing policies. Connecticut and Maine are expected to update their systems this year to counter the flood of post–Citizens United cash.

The 2016 elections will be a contest between organized money and organized people.

Campaign finance reforms at the state and local level are important. But that is not enough to counter the influence of donors such as the Koch brothers. Only by pooling resources do voters stand a chance. In cities, towns and rural districts across the United States, community groups are already fighting to ensure that their voices are heard. For example, National People’s Action, a network of progressive grass-roots organizations, recently launched a 501(c)4 arm that will allow the organization to directly get involved in political races.

Of all the grass-roots groups, unions are the best equipped to mount a counterattack on the Kochs’ ability to dominate the airwaves. Unions organize constituencies and lower barriers to political participation for their members. They allow people to come together and promote shared goals such as improved public services and middle-class jobs.

In larger political debates these citizen-based institutions tend to support policies that benefit people of the same socioeconomic class as their members, thus giving working- and middle-class Americans a voice in politics. While organized labor continues to shrink in the face of intense employer opposition in the workplace, unions are challenging billionaires by pushing equitable economic policies and supporting progressive candidates in cities and states where they have sustained an innovative and powerful presence.

Even at the peak of its power, organized labor could not hope to match Big Business in campaign contributions. From 2013 to 2014, labor spent approximately $132 million on political campaigns. In comparison, the finance, insurance and real estate industries spent $464 million, and the health, agribusiness and defense industries spent nearly $230 million in support of their preferred (mostly Republican) candidates.

Labor unions have other strengths. They can create field campaigns in which motivated members engage with their family members, neighbors and co-workers. This kind of in-person voter outreach has been shown to be far more effective than the TV ads most big money political campaigns churn out. AFL-CIO political director Mike Podhorzer attributes Obama’s success in 2012 among white working-class men, particularly in battleground states such as Ohio, to labor’s grass-roots efforts. In the 2014 midterms, the AFL-CIO talked to 1 million voters through its community affiliate, Working America.

The effects of grass-roots field campaigns are especially notable at the local level. In Connecticut, for example, organized labor’s energetic ground game was widely credited in 2011 for Gov. Dannel Malloy’s 6,400-vote margin of victory. Even in the GOP wave years of 2010 and 2014, Democrats swept California’s elections, in large part thanks to an alliance between labor and community groups devoted to the mobilization of the Latino population in Southern California.

Combined with reliably liberal Northern California, increasingly progressive voters in the Los Angeles area have dealt conservatives defeat after defeat in the state. In New York, the union-backed Working Families Party has been cited as a primary driver behind Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s rise to power, as well as the City Council’s growing Progressive Caucus. An army of paid full-time staff canvassers and thousands of trained volunteers fueled these victories.

Kochs’ ground game

Conservative groups such as Freedom Partners understand the power of grass-roots campaigns that unions organize. In fact, they are now trying to emulate these efforts. The Freedom Partners’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, recently began developing a voter outreach operation to counter those run by organized labor and other progressive groups. But there’s only so much its money can buy in terms of grass-roots muscle. Right-wing business groups have historically lacked the genuine membership base to compete on the neighbor-to-neighbor level.

This is why billionaires such as the Kochs have relentlessly attacked organized labor with state-level policies designed to reduce unions’ capabilities. Illinois offers the latest example of this. Newly elected Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is seeking to implement a policy that allows public sector workers to avoid paying dues for union representation. Conservatives understand that unions pose a particular threat because they consistently advocate for policies that benefit poor, working-class and middle-class voters.

It appears likely that 2016 will be a contest between organized money and organized people. A string of recent regressive Supreme Court rulings has maximized the political influence of the superwealthy to an unnerving degree. Comprehensive campaign finance reform is needed. But only by reaching out to their neighbors, working together and pooling resources can average Americans hope to match the power of those who seek to simply buy their preferred electoral outcomes.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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