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 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT