Skip to main content

How to seize back your democracy

By Ben Cohen and Larry Cohen
updated 11:22 AM EST, Tue February 11, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ben Cohen, Larry Cohen: 2014 elections will see huge campaign donations, spending
  • They say Citizens United ruling helped open gates to flood of outside spending to sway vote
  • They say citizens now think corporations, super PACs control democracy
  • Cohens: Public financing of campaigns would restore voice, trust of Americans

Editor's note: Ben Cohen is the co-founder of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream and the founder of the StampStampede.org campaign, whose goal is to help build the movement to amend the Constitution to get money out of politics. Larry Cohen is president of the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America. CWA, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the NAACP are conveners of the Democracy Initiative, with more than 40 organizations and 25 million members working for a 21st-century democracy.

(CNN) -- The 2014 midterm elections are quickly shaping up to be the most obscenely expensive ever. As more and more outside groups shell out an unlimited amount of campaign cash -- while accepting bottomless contributions from big business and anonymous wealthy donors -- stockpiling huge amounts of campaign cash has become a political arms race.

Even so, this is the year concerned Americans can begin to turn it all around and get big money out of politics. Together, "we the people" can stamp out big money in politics.

If we don't act now, we're in trouble. The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision was a key ruling in opening up the gates to a torrent of spending by super PACs. Outside groups spent a whopping $2 billion in the 2012 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission figures, compared with $298,549,659 in 2008.

Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Larry Cohen
Larry Cohen

According to the Center for Responsive Politics' analysis of super PACs and politically active nonprofits, by November of last year these groups had burned through $20.6 million, more than three times the $6.3 million they'd laid out by the same point in the last election.

"Dark money" organizations -- 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) nonprofits such as Americans for Prosperity or The League of Conservation Voters, which aren't required to disclose the names of their donors -- have nearly quintupled their spending of two years ago.

And right now, the nation is awaiting the Supreme Court's decision in another case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which is challenging caps on the total amount that a wealthy donor can directly give to all PACs, campaigns and parties combined -- what's known as "aggregate contribution limits." If the court strikes down contribution limits, one affluent donor would be able to give more than $3 million in direct contributions. Currently, individual donor contributions are capped at $123,200 -- more than double the median family income in America.

What's one impact of all this money?

Many Americans are becoming convinced that their votes don't count, that our political process is controlled by the biggest bankroll, and that money, not the public interest, sets policies and priorities in government. Big money gives a big voice to the wealthy and corporations, at the expense of the rest of us. It threatens the democratic voice that is the foundation of our country. Freshman representatives in Congress are asked to spend nearly half their time raising money, many providing special interest lobbyists and elites with unprecedented access. These special interests can afford to pay $5,000 a plate for politicians' fund-raising breakfasts, or for such things as ski trips, pheasant hunts and luxury golf tournaments.

A new era in campaign finance
Money stamping campaign
Romney: Rules don't make a lot of sense

This access shapes the issues that members of Congress care about. It inevitably promotes a "pay to play" government that leaves other citizens out in the cold and makes the public increasingly cynical that elections matter.

What are the steps we must take to restore our political process to one determined by "we the people"?

Public financing of campaigns would restore the political voice of small contributors and the belief that the votes and voice of ordinary Americans count. Last week, Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, introduced "government by the people" legislation that will empower "we the people" as small donors to fight back against big money in politics.

With a "Freedom from Influence Fund," financed by closing corporate tax loopholes, the bill would give small donors a $25 refundable tax credit, and match contributions of $150 or less at a rate of 6 to 1. This effort is similar to a public finance measure introduced in New York state, and other jurisdictions also are looking at this public financing model. Already 16 states, 500 municipalities and over 140 members of Congress are on record in support.

While local and national advocates are driving key reforms, every citizen -- Democrats, independents and Republicans -- can help build the movement to get money out of politics by legally stamping messages like "Not to be Used for Buying Elections" on their paper currency. On average, a dollar bill stays in circulation for approximately two and a half years and is seen by 875 people. So as more stamped bills enter the marketplace, we can create a massive visual demonstration of support for reforms -- support that our elected representatives will no longer be able to ignore.

If we care about a truly representative government and political process, one that engages and encourages the electorate to participate, then we must take action to get big money out of politics.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ben Cohen and Larry Cohen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT