BillMoyers.com is proud to collaborate with EveryVoice on a series of op-eds featuring ideas from a variety of viewpoints for making our democracy one that is truly of, by and for the people. Discover more ways to fight back against our broken campaign finance system. It’s a fight we can win.
Doris “Granny D” Haddock (1910-2010) stood less than five feet tall but she was a giant of a citizen. Without cash or connections, position or political power, the former shoe factory worker and great-grandmother of 16 set out to right a moral wrong in the life of her nation: the systematic “selling of our government from under us” until the promise of American democracy had devolved into “government of, by and for the wealthy elite.”
A wrong of such extraordinary proportions required an extraordinary response. For 14 exhausting months, Granny D trudged 3,200 miles through sun, rain and snow from California to Washington, DC, all to rouse the American public to the cause of campaign finance reform. Through her efforts, and those of countless others who followed, she helped persuade a recalcitrant Congress to pass the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, banning unlimited contributions and special interest spending on elections – until the Roberts Court.
Today, her struggle continues. Five years after the Supreme Court eviscerated decades worth of campaign finance regulations in Citizens United v FEC, American democracy is awash in special interest money. A tiny fraction of the wealthiest one percent now provides the lion’s share of campaign contributions, spending billions of dollars to influence who can run for public office and what they stand for once they are elected. The effects of Citizens United are keenly felt at every level of government, from City Hall to the White House.
Indeed, nearly two years before Americans go to the polls to elect the next president and Congress, the candidates are already engrossed in a “money election” that has little to do with the needs of the American people and everything to do with the interests of the donor elite. The pursuit of campaign cash has become all-consuming: as one congressman recently confessed, between 50 and 75 percent of a members’ time is devoted to raising money for re-election.
And that money has strings attached. In return for the millions of dollars that wealthy individuals and industries invest in political campaigns, the donors expect – and too often receive – billions of dollars in special subsidies, tax breaks and government contracts, all at the public’s expense. Political influence may in fact be the best investment money can buy – for those who have the means. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Americans who are unable to fund campaigns exert a near-zero, statistically insignificant impact on policymaking whenever their preferences diverge from the monied elite.
Put differently, in Washington, DC, ordinary Americans seeking livable wages, affordable prescriptions, high-quality education, or an end to catastrophic climate change are consigned to second-class status. Their voices go unheard, their issues unresolved in the halls of power.
But the story does not end there. Taking their cue from Granny D, and building on a successful march in 2014, a bipartisan band of citizens in her home state of New Hampshire took to the streets in a peaceful NH Rebellion against big money in politics. In January, they walked for a total of 12,041 miles from all four corners of the state, converging on the state capital of Concord to declare that democracy is not for sale.
Through ice and snow, the “Granny D walkers” made their way down city streets and mountain passes, sleeping in churches, libraries, homes and motels, educating their fellow citizens along the way about how we can end the corrupting influence of money in politics. They marched as both Democrats and Republicans, disillusioned with politics but not with America’s promise of an equal voice for all. Some 500 Granite Staters, ranging in age from 15 to 85, joined the frigid walk. The state and national media took note.
In the months ahead, citizens across the New Hampshire and beyond will continue to walk the talk in the footsteps of Granny D. With the presidential primary and caucus season already underway in New Hampshire and Iowa, the NH Rebellion and allied groups are challenging every potential presidential candidate to commit to bipartisan campaign finance reform, beginning with a small donor system of citizen-funded elections. Their goal is nothing less than the election of a president and Congress in 2016 committed to making the end of systemic corruption their highest priority from Day One.
The success of this movement will depend less on the candidates themselves than on the American people. Never before have we overcome the moral challenges of the day – from slavery to women’s suffrage to civil rights – because politicians inside Washington led the way. Rather, change has always come when citizens themselves stepped forward out of love for their country and the ideals that make it great.
If there is one enduring lesson we are to take from Granny D, it is the question that she asked upon arriving at the US Capitol 15 years ago: “Did you, brave spirits, give your lives for a government where we might stand together as free and equal citizens, or did you give your lives so that laws might be sold to the highest bidder, turning… our fair republic into a bawdy house where anything and everything is done for a price?”
We know their answer then. We know her answer now. Let us walk the talk and together restore our democratic republic.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.