Last week, The Times' editorial board criticized MoveOn.org for encouraging a boycott of Target Corp. over its attempt to buy an election.
The facts of the case are not in dispute: Target became one of the first big companies to take advantage of the Supreme Court's recent ruling in the Citizens United case — which allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections — when it spent $150,000 to help support a far right-wing candidate running for governor of Minnesota.
Where we differ sharply with The Times is in our view of the magnitude of the danger posed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, and what needs to be done to ensure that every citizen has an equal say in making the laws we live by.
Even before Citizens United, ordinary Americans had their voices drowned out as the population of corporate lobbyists roaming the halls of Congress exploded and the revolving door between K Street and Capitol Hill spun ever faster.
Pervasive corporate influence comes at a high price. Years of financial deregulation at the behest of the big banks led to an economic meltdown second only to the Depression. While corporate executives pay themselves excessive bonuses with taxpayer dollars, middle- and working-class Americans struggle to make ends meet. Big Oil's capture of the regulatory process contributed to the BP oil spill that devastated the Gulf Coast economy and environment. Action on global warming continues to be held hostage by energy lobbyists.
And now, things are set to get much worse, as Citizens United allows corporations to effectively buy elections outright. And in corporate terms, elections come cheap. The whole cost of the 2008 presidential contest — by far the most expensive in history — amounts to about two weeks' worth of profit for Exxon Mobil. Even with the Internet to amplify our voices and pool our donations, we the people cannot possibly compete with the corporations that run our economy.
Not surprisingly, MoveOn members are not the only Americans outraged by these developments. A recent poll by Survey USA found that the overwhelming majority of voters — Republicans and Democrats alike — agreed with the statement, "Corporate election spending is an attempt to bribe politicians." The poll also found that most voters — including most Republicans — disagreed with the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case.
Into this charged environment walked Target with its $150,000 donation to a Minnesota front group supporting a far-right candidate. Far from being "at worst a small error in judgment," as The Times called it, it's actually the first trickle of a potential flood of corporate cash, and a key test case. Other corporations also recognize the precedent-setting nature of this fight. A few, like Best Buy and News Corp. (the parent company of Fox News), have already followed Target's lead. Many others are watching to see whether Target pays a price for meddling in elections.
If it doesn't, the flood will intensify, which is why this boycott is so crucial. The courts are no longer available for recourse. Congress is in gridlock. And so we turn to democracy of the dollar. Boycotts are one of the oldest and most respected forms of nonviolent civil disobedience. They have served as powerful tools in righting fundamental injustices. And we hope this boycott will play a role in confronting one of the great injustices of the 21st century.
As congressman and civil rights legend John Lewis recently wrote to MoveOn's members, "It has been my life's work to ensure that individuals are able to fully participate in the political process. The passage of the Voting Rights Act helped expand our democracy and open up our democracy to let in millions of our citizens. We all know that influence does not stop at the ballot box. Today, we face another threat to our democracy, the unbridled influence of money, particularly, corporate money, in our political process. I join you in your fight to break these ties."
Unchecked corporate influence poses a grave threat to our political system and to the rights of every citizen. Unlimited corporate spending on elections creates even more formidable obstacles to solving the biggest problems we face, including global warming and economic inequality. This threat must be matched with every tool at our disposal, including people coming together to vote with our dollars rather than giving them to Target to use against us.
Justin Ruben is executive director of MoveOn.org.