David Cobb is the national program director for Democracy Unlimited and the spokesperson for the Move to Amend campaign, an effort to limit corporate money in politics by amending the Constitution. Cobb has run for attorney general of Texas, and in 2004, he was the Green Party’s nominee for president.
Grant Reeher (GR): Can you summarize the problems that Move to Amend is trying to remedy?
David Cobb (DC): The first (is) the idea that money equals speech. This idea was created by the Supreme Court in 1976 in an infamous case called Buckley v. Valeo that says that money is an expression of political speech and therefore can only be restricted in very narrow ways. It is worth pointing out, Grant, that before that decision in almost every state, including in New York state, it was a felony to use corporate money to even influence elections. You see how low we have sunk.
The second problem is the court-created idea that a corporation must be treated as if it is a person with constitutional rights. We have constitutional rights because we are living, breathing, human beings. Those rights are inherent and inalienable to us. A corporation can only be created by the state chartering process. We at Move to Amend agree that corporations should exist, we agree that they should continue to be chartered. We don’t think they have inherent and inalienable rights. If you or one of our listeners right now goes into court and claims that a constitutional right is being violated, what they are saying is that some law – local, state or federal law – is infringing upon their ability to exercise their citizenship. And if that ever happens, then the court is the appropriate place to step in and say the political process is illegitimate, because it is infringing upon human being’s rights. If a corporation, an artificial entity, can claim that they are a person with constitutional rights, it means corporate lawyers could go into court and argue that – environmental protection laws, work or safety laws, public health laws, campaign finance laws – if a corporate lawyer can argue to overturn a law attempting to restrict the conduct of a corporation, it means we, the people, are no longer in charge of our own government.
GR: What are the changes that Move to Amend is trying to make?
DC: Artificial entities do not have inherent and inalienable rights and therefore are subject to the political process. The second component is that money is not political speech and, therefore, local, state and federal representatives have the authority to make campaign finance laws. These are principles. (Specific) campaign finance laws are political questions, work and environmental protection laws or the lack of them are political questions. Political questions are supposed to be resolved in the political process. When the Supreme Court turns a political question into a Constitutional question, they just turned We the People, the sovereign citizens, from active participants into mere spectators where we have to sit in the sidelines while they tell us what we are allowed to do. And that is the reason that Move to Amend is able to bring together principled conservatives, principled liberals and moderates alike and actually be part of a movement which says, ‘we may disagree on political issues, but on the principle of the constitutional republican form of government, we are in agreement.’ And that is an exciting thing to be part of.
GR: What is your progress?
DC: Move to Amend began with 12 people in the living room in 2010. Today, we have 348,000 people actively participating. We have over 120 local affiliates. In addition to that, we have helped 600 communities pass resolutions in support of our effort: city councils, county boards of supervisors actually voting on the issue. We helped 16 states pass resolutions in support of the constitutional amendment. We have put this issue on the ballot in 200 communities. And we haven’t lost yet. We have won in San Francisco, in Boston, in Madison, Wis. You know where else we have won? Utah, Texas, rural Wisconsin.
GR: Oftentimes, constitutional amendments follow on big events in American history that change the political conversation in dramatic ways. Is there an event that you can imagine that would push this kind of thing through that hasn’t happened yet?
DC: I think it has already happened. It’s called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. We already knew that things were bad in this country. There were billions of dollars being spent, but the floodgates have been opened by Citizens United v. FEC. They pushed it even further with McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
GR: Let’s say that you are successful in getting this amendment passed. How then will change occur? Will the states and the Congress have to pass legislation that limits corporate money in politics, when it seems to be helping them stay in office?
DC: Remember that it is not going to be like one day we don’t have the amendment the next day we do, it’s not like turning on a light switch and a dark room lights up, because amending the Constitution requires a powerful shift in the body politic. It means not only has two-thirds of Congress agreed to propose it, it means that three-quarters of the state legislatures have agreed to ratify it. You realize the substantive shift that that means. You are going to already see local and state and federal legislation that is being drafted.
GR: So let me play political cynic here. I can imagine that you might get two-thirds of Congress to say this is an idea worthy of putting to the states. Let’s see if three-quarters of the states support it. But then you have to come back to a Congress that is pretty dysfunctional. McCain-Feingold seems like a distant era from long ago, when we look at Congress today.
DC: The Congress that is to propose this amendment is not currently in session and they are not currently in office. But those Congress people, the men and women who will propose it, they are already born. Many of them are probably already serving in a state legislative seat across this country. The current congressional loggerheads that leads the cynic in you to ask that kind of question, is because you are paying attention. The American people are paying attention. The approval rating of Congress is at the lowest point we have ever been since those polls were taken. People are disgusted.
GR: So this is a very long road that you are looking at. You are in a long game here.
DC: We are. We are playing long ball, and not because I want to, but because I’m a student of social movements. I’m a student of U.S. history. There has never been a constitutional amendment that actually dealt with real power that happened quickly. They all have taken sustained efforts, and Move to Amend is in it to win it. We are in it with the understanding that it is going to be at least a 10- to 20-year period. We have to take question of who rules this country seriously. We have to actually be willing to do what people before us have done: the Abolitionists, the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. Those kinds of changes were made because ordinary people were willing to do the work. It is just that simple. Now that work should be, and can be joyous. It can be uplifting. It can be wonderful. But it is work. It is meaningful, productive activity. So we ought to embrace it, engage it and be willing to be in it to win it, which means a 10- to 20-year arc.
GR: And I also have the sense that your movement is not taking a position on what specifically the alternative campaign financing arrangements ought to look like once you establish this amendment.
DC: That is absolutely right. This is not a political issue, this is a principle. The principles have to be set, and then we can engage in what the legislation would look like. There are many people in Move to Amend who have an opinion one way or another on different legislation. And we say, “Look, as an individual, you should do that.” But as Move to Amend, we are dedicated to the principles of the democratic republican form of government. So no, we don’t want to be prescriptive in the way that legislation would be.
GR: Where can people who want to participate or want to learn more go? Will they be able to link up with local people by going to your website?
DC: I’m very pleased to tell you that here in Syracuse there is a very strong chapter. If you want to get involved, there is a Syracuse Move to Amend affiliate. All you do is go to the website, MoveToAmend.org. Sign up there, and the local organizers will have access and they’ll be in touch with you.
GR: What is your worse trait?
DC: Patience. The reality is that I had to train myself to have the patience for the kind of political change. It does not come naturally.
GR: What professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?
DC: What surprised me was that becoming a lawyer didn’t actually provide me the opportunity to fight for justice. As a lawyer in the disputes that I handled, I might be able to get individual justice for an individual client, but the problem was the legal system was rigged in favor of the wealthy; the structures of power in this country did not facilitate justice. The thing that I am most surprised by is that my desire to be a lawyer ended up not being what I thought it would be, but being an engaged citizen is providing me the opportunity to fight for justice the way I wanted to.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.