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Citizens United an attack on democracy

Please. Put aside the labels. For the next few minutes, forget about "Republican," "Democrat," "Independent," "Libertarian" and the like. Cast aside your political preferences, and free yourself from the bias that may encumber you as a result of watching your favorite cable channel talk shows. For these few minutes, look at the world only through this lens: "I am an American citizen, and I am a West Virginian."

Our nation's founders and their army of immigrants rose up against the tyranny of the King of England and his wealthy landowner cohorts and created a democracy (imperfect as it may have been: only landowners could vote, not the slaves they owned and not women). In the ensuing 250 years, thanks to a series of populist movements, we progressively strove as a nation to be better and more democratic: the Abolitionist Movement, the Labor Movement, the Women's Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement stand as testaments to those efforts.

Those victories were achieved only after bitter opposition was overcome, but we as a nation drew together, civility returned and the wounds healed.

Now, astonishingly, all of those gains, and the fundamental underpinnings of the democracy that produced them, have been deeply wounded. Wounded not by an attack from a bitter adversary from another continent; rather, an attack from within, a wound inflicted by a decision by the highest court in our land.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which effectively equated a corporation to a living, breathing, feeling person and equated free speech to piles of money, opened the floodgates to virtually unrestrained corporate political contributions and has suddenly created an existential threat to American democracy. In this year's and the 2010 election cycles, millions of dollars have flowed from shadowy donors through "front" organizations -- Super PACs -- to fund advertising for candidates favored by those donors and to attack their opponents. Candidates who have heretofore enjoyed the grassroots support of their constituents are finding their campaigns overwhelmed by huge infusions of cash from undisclosed donors laundered by Super PACs and spent on advertising -- often false -- on behalf of the donors' chosen candidate.

In such races, obviously, the odds are heavily in favor of the Big Money that can purchase more "free speech" than you or I can give our candidate. Game over.

To the millions of American voters who don't have $40 million lying around to counter Sheldon Adelson's contributions to Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, it is dispiriting to think of the consequences in terms of our society's ability to govern itself. Several million eligible voters, feeling this disparity and no small measure of despair, will stay home from the polls on Election Day. It is a cycle that shakes the very underpinnings of a free society.

Considerations of the common good, medical care, Social Security, national defense, the deficit, the right to bear arms, environmental regulations on coal, abortion, collective bargaining -- none of these will matter if our democratic processes become totally subverted by the Big Money that was turned loose on us by the Citizens United decision.

Fortunately, this being America, some good West Virginians and their fellow Americans have heard a call to arms and they are answering that call. Just as it took grassroots movements to end slavery, to give women the right to vote, to give workers some measure of safety and to end discrimination against minorities, a movement is afoot that has the goal of reversing the effects of Citizens United by means of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is an energetic and ambitious movement, and it is up and running and populated by people committed to the common good and to making our democracy well again.

Please take notice, my fellow West Virginians, of this grassroots movement and become a part of it. Take a look at the work being done by the folks at Public Citizen and the West Virginia Citizens Action Group and West Virginians for Democracy; look at MovetoAmend.org. These people have answered the call to arms. Your fellow citizens, your family, your neighbors may well decide that this is a movement they can not only relate to, but which is also worthy of their marching on the State Capitol or City Hall to awaken others and garner official support for this noble cause. West Virginians can send a powerful message across our nation if our state Legislature can be persuaded to pass a resolution supporting a constitutional amendment that will reverse the effects of Citizens United. Our democracy is bleeding profusely at the moment, and it needs our attention. Time to step up.

Heiskell, a Charleston lawyer, is a former West Virginia secretary of state, former state Republican chairman and member of the George H.W. Bush National Steering Committee. In 2006, he served as a monitor in a disputed presidential election in Batumi, Adjara.


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