Bruce Smith, front, and fellow protesters.
by Amanda Litvinov
Retired teacher Bruce Smith says his eight years as a reading specialist in the Prince William County, Virginia, schools were among the most rewarding of his career. “I had the opportunity to teach those students to be critical thinkers as well as better readers,” said the Virginia Education Association member.
He hopes those lessons took, because his students will need to keep their critical faculties engaged as voters in the Citizens United era.
In that landmark decision, the Supreme Court reversed years of precedent restricting corporate campaign contributions based on the argument that to do so amounts to limiting free speech protected under the First Amendment. The Court’s ruling—which stunned many observers—ushered in the era of the so-called super PACs that allow corporate donors to remain anonymous.
Major demonstrations took place in almost every major U.S. city last weekend to mark the second anniversary of the decision. The protest Smith organized in his hometown of Woodbridge, Virginia, targeted Bank of America, which spent more than $6.5 million lobbying federal lawmakers during the 2009-10 Congress, and played a major role in the home foreclosure crisis. Though nasty weather limited their numbers, the sign-holders garnered honks and hollers of support from cars travelling along the busy roadway.
Like many, Smith believes a constitutional amendment will be required to undo the damage that has been done to the election process. It must be clarified, Smith said, that “corporations are not people.”
The Citizens United decision had near-instantaneous effects, with pro-corporate Republicans fueled by unlimited campaign contributions winning office across the country in the 2010 election cycle, in which spending by outside groups rose 427 percent. Earlier this year, Mitt Romney’s super PAC flooded the airwaves with $20 million of negative television ads just days before the Iowa caucus, causing prior front-runner Newt Gingrich, who had held a substantial lead, to capsize.
“What did the voters gain in the way of knowledge from that,” questions Smith, “except that the candidates are willing to use garrulous attacks on the personal lives of their opponents in order to sway the election?”
A study by the Pew Research Center shows that among voters who are aware of the Citizens United Ruling, 65 percent say it has negatively affected the presidential campaign; the vast majority of that group says the effect is very negative.
Campaign spending in the 2012 election is predicted to reach all-time high of $8 billion.
Educators can play a special role in repairing the situation, said Smith. At the 2010 NEA Representative Assembly, delegates voted to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution “to enable Congress and the states to regulate the expenditure of funds for political contributions and election-related campaign speech by corporations.” And those who teach high school students can help prepare their students to become informed voters.
Smith recalled that when he taught in Atlanta public schools, county voting machines were brought to the high school for student government elections. “By the time those kids graduated, they’d used those machines four times. It takes the mystery out of it.” Schools can also help students get registered to vote, and emphasize how important it is to exercise that fundamental right.
“We have to protect the electoral system for everybody,” Smith said. “That’s what all of this is about.”