Citizens United for Real Civic Engagement

Jan 21, 2014Joelle Gamble

On the 4th anniversary of Citizens United v. FEC, consider the ways that citizens can engage beyond campaign donations and the ballot box.

Today marks the 4th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission. The significance of this case is difficult to overstate as it gave limitless ability to mega-interest groups and corporations to spend money to convince voters to vote for or against a political candidate.

As Jeff Raines wrote for Next New Deal, the latest fights in the courts are less about individuals’ right to free speech and more heavily focused on how much monetary influence the wealthy have on our electoral processes. Even the McCutcheon v. FEC case, while concerning individual donor limits, is still centered in a debate around funding committees and other organized donor groups. While curbing the influence of Big Money on our democracy is a worthwhile fight, we sometimes lose the bigger question of how each voter shows up in said democracy in our attempts to talk about how voters as voting blocks and interest groups.

While we know that the level of power that big money gained as a result of Citizens United is poisonous to our democracy, passing meaningful national legislative changes has been an arduous yet worthwhile battle for organizers across the country. Outside of contributing our voices to national efforts to overturn Citizens United, what can those of us without direct access to Washington, D.C. do to strengthen the influence of everyday Americans in the act of governing?

The most immediate answer we come to is, of course, voting.  However, new innovations at the local level are creating fresh avenues for civic participation. Practices such as participatory budgeting and participatory zoning are just a few ways in which we can flex our civic muscle outside of the voting booth. Participatory budgeting, for example, allows community members to make decisions on how to spend a pre-allotted pool of funds from an agency or government’s budget. This approach balances efficiency of outcome, by only allowing participation in a small portion of the budget, while deepening investment and engagement amongst stakeholders.

The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network values people-centric, policy work that engages young people in their own communities. As we articulated in our report, Government By and For Millennial America, how government engages citizens is foundational to its effectiveness as an institution. Voting and money in politics have a role to play in how much weight one individual has in government. But higher civic engagement at all levels is still important to ensuring that those elected produce results that the citizenry desires. After all, many of the nation’s local and state-level public financing laws have been implemented via legislative processes and grassroots organizing.

Thus, as we continue to hear arguments regarding who has real power under U.S. election law, core questions at play are: what does it mean to have policies and rules that are people-centric? And how can we develop a system that is outcome-oriented and empowering to as much of the population as possible? Most Americans agree that eliminating a system in which some people have a wholly distorted level of financial influence over others is a good start. But by engaging in civic processes in our local communities, we can take our political engagement one step further, and increase individual empowerment in our system.

Joelle Gamble is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network National Field Strategist.

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