The "Occupy" movement has been inspired in part by the increasingly outsized political power of the top 1%, which has made elected officials more responsive to deep-pocket donors than those they were elected to represent. In response to the other 99% being left politically and economically disempowered, former MSNBC host Cenk Uygur has announced plans to work toward amending the U.S. Constitution to get big money out of politics and restore representative democracy.
"The number one problem in our nation is 'taxation without representation'," Uygur tells the Center for Media and Democracy. "Politicians represent their donors rather than the people that elected them. We've lost our democracy and our votes have become irrelevant," he says. "Who wins an election is determined by who has the most money."
Uygur, whose online show The Young Turks will move to Al Gore's Current TV network next month, says "we've lost hope in the electoral process," citing President Barack Obama's failure to enact key changes promised during the 2008 race for the White House, especially with respect to changing how elections are funded.
"The only solution is to call a constitutional convention to, at a minimum, overturn corporate personhood and create public financing for elections," he says.
Wolf PAC at OWS
At Occupy Wall Street last week, Uygur announced the formation of a Political Action Committee called the "Wolf PAC" to make that constitutional convention happen. Using "the people's microphone," Uygur stated (and the crowd repeated): "We want an army ('we want an army') to fight for an amendment ('to fight for an amendment') to declare ('to declare') that corporations are not people ('that corporations are not people')."
Constitutional amendments can be proposed by either two-thirds of both houses of the United States Congress or by a national convention assembled at the request of at least thirty-four state legislatures. Uygur says "there is no way that two-thirds of [each house of] our corrupt Congress will sign off on cutting their donations," so Wolf PAC is taking the latter route. The group aims to assemble volunteers in each state with diverse skills to "occupy the statehouses," then get thirty-four states to submit applications to call a constitutional convention. Once the convention proposes the amendment, three-quarters of the states must ratify it, and Wolf PAC plans to put pressure on state legislators to make that happen. Uygur said 2,900 volunteers have signed up in the first five days, exceeding initial expectations.
The Young Turks founder says he is inspired by the Occupy protests but is clear that he does not speak for the movement, nor is his proposed amendment a "demand." But he does hope to work with the energy of the protests. "I've been planning Wolf PAC for a long time," he says, "and probably would have rolled it out later," but says the Occupy movement was a "perfect fit" for getting the effort moving.
Others have also connected the Occupy movement to the need for a constitutional amendment that would separate money and politics. Hip hop mogul Russell Simmons has said as much, as have some journalists. (The Center has also commented on this issue.)
Uygur is also clear that the need to amend the Constitution is "totally and completely non-partisan." Money in politics is an issue about which "everyone on the political spectrum is concerned." He said he is open to Tea Party involvement, assuming that "the billionaires funding the Tea Party leadership don't lead them astray."
Other Amendment Efforts
Uygur is not the first to propose a constitutional amendment to address the fallout from the Citizens United decision and the growth of corporate power and money in American elections. But his effort has been given a boost by commencing as the Occupy movement gains momentum.
Several public interest groups have been calling for a constitutional amendment in the aftermath of Citizens United, which struck down bipartisan campaign finance laws and declared that Congress could not limit spending by corporations or others on so-called "issue" ads. (Read more at the Center for Media and Democracy's clearinghouse for information about corporate "rights.") Despite some of the differences in tactics or amendment language, leading groups have rallied around a Statement of Common Purpose, which states, in part:
"The Citizens United case ... opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending to influence elections at all levels of government, [and] has brought home the importance of amending the Constitution to ensure that 'We the People' does not mean we the corporations. ... [A]ll of us are united in the understanding that the Court's decision in Citizens United must be remedied by amending the Constitution in order to restore the democratic promise of America."
This statement is signed by the Center for Media and Democracy, People for the American Way, Public Citizen, Common Cause, MovetoAmend, Democracy Unlimited, Alliance for Democracy, Progressive Democrats for America, The Program on Corporations, Law, & Democracy, Liberty Tree, and Free Speech for People, whose general counsel, Jeff Clements, has just published a new book, "Corporations Are Not People," available here. (The Center has also supported the coalition called Move to Amend -- which has obtained over 100,000 signatures for its motion to amend the Constitution and which has local chapters forming across the country.)
The Center has also published an independent assessment by legal expert Greg Colvin analyzing amendments proposed in Congress and by leading groups, as well as his proposal to ensure that only people can fund campaigns -- not corporations, partnerships, or other types of associations. (Based on PRWatch's investigations of shadowy front groups running "issue" ads -- which are often funded by mega-rich individuals like the Koch Brothers or Fred Young -- the Center has taken the position that proposed constitutional solutions must consider how money from the 1% drowns out the voices of the 99%.)
Uygur's proposed amendment deals with that issue by capping contributions at $100, as well as overturning corporate personhood. It reads:
Corporations are not people. They have none of the constitutional rights of human beings. Corporations are not allowed to give money to any politician, directly or indirectly. No politician can raise over $100 from any person or entity. All elections must be publicly financed.
Other individuals have also called for amendments, including Dylan Ratigan, whose colleague Jimmy Williams has started the Get Money Out Foundation, and Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who just published a book calling for a constitutional convention.
Occupy the Statehouses
Uyger says he has been in touch with others working on a constitutional amendment and hopes to collaborate.
Wolf PAC is focusing first on recruiting and organizing, then giving autonomy to the organizers and volunteers in a particular state to pursue the goal of getting their state legislature to call a constitutional convention -- which might include occupying the statehouses. The group does not expect to get involved in election campaigns but does plan on holding politicians accountable.
The Young Turks founder says he is in this fight "for as long as it takes."
"This is not a theoretical exercise," he says. "We aim to get this passed ... and get back to representative democracy."
More information can be found at Wolf-PAC.com.