Justice John Paul Stevens had seen a lot of precedent overturned by the time the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in January 2010. Appointed to the court by Gerald Ford after a career as a distinguished Republican jurist, he’d been there for contentious cases on abortion, the death penalty, Gitmo, you name it. But none had prepared him for the way the court’s new conservative majority, led by John Roberts, seized on an obscure campaign finance case expected to produce a narrow ruling and used it to shred nearly four decades of federal law.

The majority opinion in Citizens United takes up 57 pages, but it’s pretty efficiently boiled down as follows: (1) Money is speech; (2) corporations are people; (3) therefore, under the First Amendment, the government can’t stop corporations from spending money on politics pretty much however they choose.

Stevens penned an impassioned 90-page dissent lambasting the "glittering generality" of this construction. "Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it," he wrote. "Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races."

Stevens wasn’t the only one appalled. Citizens United set off a torrent of outrage, culminating in the high drama of the president (a constitutional law professor, lest we forget) condemning the court in the State of the Union for opening "the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections." Anger spanned the political spectrum (80 percent were opposed shortly after the ruling, 65 percent "strongly") and helped spark the Occupy movement.

The right "recognizes something that few on the left recognize: that campaign finance law underlies all other substantive law."

But Americans’ disgust didn’t stop the bagmen, on both sides of the aisle, from seizing the opportunity. Just ask Dan Maffei, a Democrat in upstate New York’s 25th District who led Ann Marie Buerkle, a pro-life activist with scant political experience, by 12 points two weeks before the election. Then Karl Rove’s American Crossroads buried him with $400,000 worth of attack ads—and Buerkle won by a mere 648 votes.

So how to put elections back in the hands of voters? Here are the four options:

Constitutional amendment: Okay, it takes two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures. Nevertheless, we did just that to bring about Prohibition in 1919 and then to overturn it in 1933, and to lower the voting age to 18 in 1971. That last one wrapped in a mere five months; then again, the 27th Amendment, which regulated congressional raises, was in the works for 203 years. And recall the Equal Rights Amendment: "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States." No-brainer, right? The ERA passed Congress in a landslide in ’72 (354 to 24 in the House, 84 to 8 in the Senate). It was endorsed by Richard Nixon, included in the Republican Party platform, and ratified by 30 state legislatures within another year. And then Phyllis "Stop Unisex Bathrooms!" Schlafly whipped up a major froth, got enough culture war firebrands elected to state legislatures, and stopped it cold.

So yes, it’s technically possible to pass an amendment clarifying that corporations are not quite the same as people and money is not quite the same as speech. (Several organizations, including People for the American Way and a new outfit called Move to Amend, are pushing for this.) But there’s also a lot of dark-money groups waiting to underwrite a Schlafly-like play.

SCOTUS deathwatch: How about waiting for a conservative justice or two to die while Democrats hold the White House and the Senate? Yeeaah. Absent the plot devices of a John Grisham thriller, don’t hold your breath. Then again, know who’s been the master of this kind of waiting game? The folks who brought you Citizens United. When he started flooding the docket with anti-campaign-finance-regulation cases in the 1980s, conservative lawyer James Bopp Jr. was facing a hostile court. But he kept at it until the majority shifted—and slammed the ball he’d teed up.

Let the sun shine in: In the nearer term, there’s the option the Roberts court expressly invited in Citizens United—full-monty disclosure. Not long after the ruling, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced the DISCLOSE Act with 114 cosponsors, just two of them Republicans. It would have banned most secret donations, forced companies to report their giving to shareholders, and shut foreign corporations out of electioneering. The bill’s life was brief and full of ironies (among the clauses tacked on in the House was one exempting the NRA); it passed the House in an anemic 219-206 vote—36 Dems voted nay—and died, as all good legislation must, when the Senate fell one vote short (RIP Ted Kennedy) of a filibuster-proof 60 votes. Van Hollen has reintroduced the legislation, and with Sen. John McCain back in the reform business, it might just stand a chance.

But Congress is not the only game in town. Court after court has come down squarely on the side of disclosure, and in May, the DC court of appeals ruled that nonprofits like Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the US Chamber of Commerce must reveal their donors’ names. In another promising step, the IRS has made noises about revoking the tax exemption of dark-money groups.

Taxpayer-financed campaigns: No one likes big money in politics—least of all, perhaps, members of Congress who toil in the Hill’s drab call centers, dialing donors to beg for cash. That’s why public financing was key to the post-Watergate reforms, and until billionaire Steve Forbes opted out in 1996, every major presidential candidate took it. But the system failed to keep up with the cost of elections; this year, candidates could hope to get about $90 million in public financing, whereas Obama expects to raise up to $1 billion. Nevertheless, public financing can still make a big difference in down-ballot races, from the statehouse all the way to obscure but critical judicial elections. And keep in mind, today’s state legislator is tomorrow’s US senator.

As the rich get richer, throwing six-figure sums at presidential campaigns is just like tipping for good service.

In the end, all these avenues need to be pursued, and here’s why: As Paul S. Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center told MoJo‘s Andy Kroll, the right "recognizes something that few on the left recognize: that campaign finance law underlies all other substantive law." In other words, no matter what you care about—climate change, abortion, taxes, net neutrality—it all comes back to who pays for our elections. Need a more selfish reason? Because the 1 percent have bent the system to their advantage, America’s median household income—your income—is $40,000 lower than it would have been had incomes continued to keep pace with economic growth. Conversely, as the rich get richer, throwing six-figure sums at presidential campaigns is just like tipping for good service. Snake, meet tail.

So yes, we might agree with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), no stranger to campaign rainmaking, that Citizens United is the court’s worst decision since it upheld segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson. But bad law is not without redress—if voters shame reluctant representatives into getting off the dark-money teat. "At bottom," wrote Justice Stevens, the court’s opinion is "a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding…While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics."

Ready to explore for yourself? Here’s choose-your-own adventure guide to the options, with plenty of links to more resources.

<p>Sadly, in order to play, you must have javascript enabled.</p>

61

Monika Bauerlein

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Monika Bauerlein is co-editor of Mother Jones. For more of her stories, click here. You can also follow her on Twitter. RSS | Twitter

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Clara Jeffery is co-editor of Mother Jones. For more of her stories, click here. You can also follow her on Twitter. RSS | Twitter

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  • Jacqueline D. Reyes06/17/2012 09:28 AM

    This comment was flagged for review.

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  • RudyTwoShoes06/17/2012 09:55 AMin reply to Jacqueline D. Reyes

    This is a scam/spam link and has been flagged.

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  • RudyTwoShoes06/17/2012 09:58 AM

    "Corporations are people and money is speech" yet corporations can commit fraud, slander and treason without prosecution.  We the People need the same freedom and access (and most certainly the same level of freedom from taxation, the ability to purchase a Toyota directly from Japan without import tax and the ability to purchase drugs, food and anything from Canada or anyplace we want).

    Free trade and free "speech" for everyone.

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  • Ronnie Waters06/17/2012 06:37 PMin reply to RudyTwoShoes

    This is the only intelligent point made here.  Thanks Rudy

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  • Won WordYesterday 05:23 AMin reply to RudyTwoShoes

    One upon a time, corporations received the death penalty for egregious acts. 200 years ago, corporate charters could be–and were–revoked by the state. When was the last time that happened?

    Two+ perfect candidates: BP for their flagrant disregard for personnel and environmental safety, and JP Morgan/Bank of America/Wells Fargo for their engineered destruction of the economy.

    Revoke their charters, see off their assets to pay for cleaning their messes, and prosecute their officers. Done and done.

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  • melinda_jobsYesterday 10:56 AMin reply to RudyTwoShoes

    corporation are about "protection their bottom line" with all causes or by any mean.   

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  • slave2libertyYesterday 12:08 PMin reply to melinda_jobs

    And you’re not about protecting your bottom line?

    "all causes or by any  mean" – wow, that’s amazing – i didn’t realize that all corporations and all people whom they consist of use any and all means necessary to protect what is rightfully theirs (money or right to associate).

    If this is true, then why am i not tripping on dead bodies in the streets daily, or receiving a visit from Guido of ABC Corporation, and being told i have to buy their products, or else? Seems like, you demagogue just a little.

    Ironically, i have been visited on occasion from Guido of the State apparatus, telling me how much soda i can drink, how much salt i can put on my steak, what type of bicycle helmet to wear, and how much of my own money is rigthfully some else’s who makes less than me, or that i must pay for programs which encourage ILLEGAL immigration (or straight out amnesty), so that Democrats can increase their voter rolls.

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  • slave2libertyYesterday 11:54 AMin reply to RudyTwoShoes

    So, is it really as simple as lefists make it out – that corporations deserve no protections which are afforded to the individuals whom they consist of?

    Should a corporation not be afforded protections against illegal search and seizure? Or taxation without representation? Or freedom of political speech?

    On the flip-side – if corporations (a collection of individuals) are  not to be held to the same laws as the individuals, what laws are they accountable to? In other words – what legal parameters are their actions judged against?

    Me thinks, that the ONLY reason leftists get their panties in a bunch on this issue, is because they don’t like the resulting effectiveness that occurs by having many people pooling their resources to speak out against the left’s beloved statists.

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  • Phoenix WomanYesterday 01:24 PMin reply to slave2liberty

    "Many people"?  Nah, just a handful of very rich people who have used the brainwashing techniques of Fred Bernays, coupled with skillful and amoral "Southern Strategy" manipulation of race hatreds cloaked in the mantle of deficit hawkery ( http://my.firedoglake.com/phoe….

    In the meantime, the left is outgunned and outfinanced by these new high-tech feudal overlords whose butts you love kissing for the tiny crumbs they give you.

    Why not skip the parasitical overlords and go for economic democracy instead? You know, where the people who do the work — not commissars, not boards of directors, not third-generation trustafarians whose cosseted lives are so different from ours that they think Ayn Rand’s flatterings of them as the master race are sober truth — actually get the proceeds therefrom.

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  • FromtheGreatWhiteNorth06/17/2012 10:57 AM

    The cynicism embodied by Citizens United defies belief. The notion that corporations are citizens is so offensive. Once again, we privitize profits (bought politicians) and social risk (prosecution for illegal actives = fine. Just add it to the price). We might be able to have a conversation about things when a ‘corporation’ is jailed for malfeasance (e.g., suspended from doing ANY business for the length of the sentence). Those of us older feel helpless. Those of us younger feel nothing – they’re excluded forever.

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  • talktoo06/17/2012 04:12 PMin reply to FromtheGreatWhiteNorth

    ..or buried in Arlington

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  • Won WordYesterday 05:28 AMin reply to talktoo

    As a former servicemember, I council young people to avoid military service like the plague. Patton had it right: let "the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."

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  • Steven DeeringYesterday 07:05 AMin reply to FromtheGreatWhiteNorth

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Lately, I seem to be getting into more arguments with friends/family/coworkers about immigrants and minorities being the problem ("They get free health care, food stamps!") as if they have any political clout. Meanwhile, corporations are handed subsidies after posting historic revenues. Why? Because, job creators. Or something. It is really confusing… But then I look at Florida and see a voter purge to combat nonexistent fraud and it becomes slightly clearer.

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  • slave2libertyYesterday 12:39 PMin reply to Steven Deering

    Those are some great ethics you live by – if they don’t have political "clout", then just let them do as they want, taking resources from LEGAL citizens, making the rule of law arbitrary, ignoring US sovereignty, and giving politicians fiat power to ignore immigration policy.

    Regardless of your accomodations and lack of principle, the truth is, ILLEGAL aliens have plenty of political clout which is aimed at undermining US Sovereignty. You never heard of MALDEF, The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, The National Council of La Raza (THE race!), or MECHA?

    As for the specious attacks on Florida and every municpality for attempting to ensure the integrity of our election system, it seems that you would prefer to look the other way as long as those illegal votes sway in your favor.

    Do you honestly believe that there should be no auditing or oversight of the voter records? That people should be able to vote in multiple districts (as is sometimes the case with college students, by accident), or that widowers should be able to mail in their deceased partner’s ballot? Or that ILLEGAL aliens should be able to vote?

    Besides, if there is no fraud (or…

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  • Phoenix WomanYesterday 01:31 PMin reply to slave2liberty

    If "illegal aliens" had clout, they wouldn’t be working starvation wages. 

    Which is of course why, contrary to your protestations, Republicans love the current situation:  You use undocumented workers as a club with which to force documented workers to accept starvation wages, too.

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  • dustime806/17/2012 12:45 PM

    The (misnomer) dark money makes me almost laugh at those who chose the word to cover the correct term "corruption" in the money used by corporate America they launder into political donations. I guess this falls under the term political correctness which is another corruption to cover up unfettered mis-use of power by elected officials voted into office. We are allowing our country to be pilfered and destroyed by powers within and think nothing of it. People seem more interested in their next stash of marijuana or legalization of this crap than the direction America is headed. What do you think? Mother Jones, am I wrong here?

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  • Won WordYesterday 05:31 AMin reply to dustime8

    People seem more interested in their next stash of marijuana or legalization of this crap whatever entertainment garbage is on TeeVee than the direction America is headed.

    Fixed it for you.

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  • Steven DeeringYesterday 07:07 AMin reply to dustime8

    I think Orwell would have really enjoyed the pizza = vegetable idea.

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  • Marc Grober06/17/2012 01:37 PM

    No mention of Montana’s perspective?  For shame…..

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  • William06/17/2012 01:59 PM

    Speaking as a 10th and 12th generation Yankee gun-owner, and 6th generation college grad who was born a Republican, I think it will take a class war to return our legislative system to some semblance of moral equity.  Our Supreme Court is dominated by people who simply don’t have any skin in our national game, except to make themselves and their cronies rich and powerful.  We need term limits on Supreme Court seats, perhaps 14 years, so that no president could appoint more than one, under normal circumstances, and we need a list of qualifying prerequisites, including having at least either a graduate degree not only in law, but also in American History with several juried publications, and service in uniform in combat whenever other Americans are deployed in combat, otherwise demanding public service in uniform at low pay for at least 4 years.  Scalia is a cowbird whose loyalties are to wealth and the Vatican, and Alito is right in there with him.  Thomas’s qualifications are so minimal they could be stenciled on the head of a pin, and Roberts is most qualified to be a billionaire’s chauffeur.

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  • B E Pratt06/17/2012 08:30 PMin reply to William

    While term limits is an intriguing idea, the whole idea behind appointment for life was to keep politics out of the Supreme Court. It worked very well up until recently. It used to be that when a Justice was appointed, one never really knew what they would do until some decisions came down. You could guess fairly well, but you could never be sure.

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  • Won WordYesterday 05:37 AMin reply to William

    How about setting congressional, presidential and SCOTUS salaries to minimum wage, with no benefits, such as healthcare and pensions, just like the majority of Americans? Any raise they vote themselves must be matched by an equivallent dollar increase in minimum wage.

    Yeah, I know. Happy fantasy.

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  • DebbieSmith195606/17/2012 03:58 PM

    American election laws set very specific limits to the size of donations that individuals and Political Action Committees may make to Presidential campaigns. Unfortunately, as shown here, it is very difficult to track the trail of a donation as funds are moved from one PAC to another to ensure that the limits are being followed:

    http://viableopposition.blogsp…

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  • tiredoftea06/17/2012 04:15 PM

    Another victory for the right, activist judges, of the right temperament, at the SCOTUS level. Wake up Dems! You have lost most of the battles and the war. Will your convictions and backbone ever show up?

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  • Won WordYesterday 05:38 AMin reply to tiredoftea

    Dems have no spine, and Repubs have no heart.

    Such is the way of the world.

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  • DTaggert06/17/2012 04:36 PM

    I’m still wondering what makes the 1st amendment so difficult to understand:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…”

    No law, means exactly nothing. Congress can’t do anything at all regulating what we talk about or how we choose to say. We can talk individually, anonymously, using any media, including those not known at the time.

    We can choose to talk as a member of a group – a neighborhood association, a professional organization, as a Tea Partier, as a stockholder in a corporation.

    Even the states have a very limited ability to control speech due to the incorporation doctrine that started with the 14th amendment.

    This freedom of speech allowed the Tea Party movement to spring up spontaneously and conclusively stop the slide of this country toward collectivism, so now, free speech is being viscously attacked

    Citizens United merely affirmed the first amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that “Congress shall make no law” meant exactly what it says. It doesn’t matter if you speak anonymousl­y, it doesn’t matter if you choose to speak as a member of…

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  • middleclassman106/17/2012 05:28 PMin reply to DTaggert

    the tea party did not spring up spontaniously, it was created by the likes of the koch brothers who deceived some gullible citizens that their lives would somehow be better by taking our country back for the rich and greedy.

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  • mcsandbergYesterday 04:17 AMin reply to middleclassman1

    I have personal experience with the Tea Party. I was at the very first one that we had in Denver and I can assure you – the Tea Party movement is real, and it happened long before we got any professional help! You had to be there to appreciate the incredible enthusiasm and determination to get this country back on track. Check out http://www.lloydmarcus.com/ to see just how genuine the Tea Party is!

    The Tea Party is the result of lots of people reading the classics of liberty – Atlas Shrugged, The Road to Serfdom and others are always among Amazon.com best sellers. The people I meet at the Tea Parties are far from ignorant. Some have even read Von Mises "Human Action"!

    You can ONLY pick up 63 house seats, 6 house seats and most incredibly 695 state house seats with a true grass roots movement.

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  • Won WordYesterday 05:41 AMin reply to mcsandberg

    Ayn Rand’s work is as much a "classic of liberty" as "Grapes of Wrath" is about the benefits of unregulated Agriculture, "The Jungle" is about the benefits of unregulated meat packing, and "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" a classic of liberty of plantation owners.

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  • mcsandbergYesterday 06:04 AMin reply to Won Word

    Atlas Shrugged is a description of a country moving from liberty to collectivism. The reason its so compelling, is that its based on what Ms. Rand observed as Russia turned into the USSR. So, its very much a classic of liberty. Its the novel that introduces people to the library of liberty. Most of the Tea Partiers I’ve talked to mention it as the book that explained what’s happening to this country.

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