Representation Thru Occupation: Occupy DC and the Harsh Reality of Politics in America

After reading Ms. Torres-Spelliscy’s article in the Huffington Post last week, I was inspired to go to McPherson Square in DC to see Occupy DC first-hand.

At first glance, McPherson Square appears on par with what one would expect from a protest in DC:

Occupy DC

Much like the other Occupy protests, McPherson is littered with signs protesting a diversity of issues, from foreign aid to Israel to “corporate greed.” 

But it was my interaction with one of the protestors in (what appeared to be) an information booth that stood out.  After explaining the variety of grievances that drive the protest to an elderly couple, the gentleman explained that the common theme of the Occupy movement was undue corporate influence in politics.

Towards the end of his explanation, the gentleman said: “Ordinary people are marginalized by a political process by which politicians are supposed to answer to them, instead of having perpetual candidates spending their time chasing contributions from corporations to fund their campaigns.”

To which I had to ask: “How do you reconcile the fact that corporations are allowed to make independent, non-coordinating expenditures with your assertion that candidates spend their time chasing money from corporate treasuries?”

The truth is that corporations are not allowed to contribute money to candidates.  This has been the law for over 100 years.  For all of the hullabaloo about Citizens United (including hyperbole from the current administration), corporations are not buying our government by directly investing in a candidate’s political war chest.

I went on to have a productive, half-hour long conversation with the protester about election law and corporations. We even managed to find some common ground.  My basic premise was why, if a group of people is subject to government regulation as a group, why, as a group, should they be in any way limited from voicing their political opinions?

The response I received highlights the dichotomy between what people believe they are allowed to do under the First Amendment and what they are actually able to do without involving the FEC.

“Individuals within a company should be able to band together outside of the corporate structure to engage in grassroots political campaigning, such as creating and distributing fliers or making signs, and they should be able to discuss how candidates, if elected, would impact their jobs.”

The protestor was surprised to hear that, if enough people banded together and spent just $1,000 a year on federal campaigns through this “grassroots advocacy” campaign and did not register with the FEC, they would most likely be in violation of federal election law.

He was initially skeptical.  After all, isn’t the First Amendment fairly simple?  Why would there be a government barrier to grassroots campaigns?

Like most Americans, he was surprised that in order to utilize his First Amendment right, he would have to register a group with the government.  So what would this organization be?

Some sort of political committee, likely a PAC. 

The irony was palpable.

Corporations do not create barriers between people and politics.  The government and politicians play that role.  But by directing anger towards one particular voice in the political system rather than the people who do create barriers towards entry, the protesters are empowering a system that is systematically used by politicians to silence their political opposition.  As research shows, campaign finance laws disproportionately punish small, grassroots efforts.

To the protestors:  The FEC is four blocks south and five blocks east.  If you really want to protest the “undue influence of money in politics,” you may want to start by making ensure that you don’t need a corporate treasury and legal counsel to participate yourselves. 

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.