MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This campaign season, there's been so much debate already about who and what has influence in this campaign. There is really no question that so-called superPACs have played a major role already. SuperPACs have allowed individuals to steer large, unrestricted donations to their favorite candidates.
This week, progressive activists are meeting in Washington, D.C. with the goal of answering what they see as the corrupting influence of money with the power of numbers. Organizers of the Take Back the American Dream conference are hoping to energize the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party ahead of the 2012 election.
We wanted to talk with one of the folks who'll be attending and speaking at the conference, Representative Keith Ellison. He is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He represents Minnesota's Fifth District and he's with us now.
Representative Ellison, thanks so much for speaking with us.
REPRESENTATIVE KEITH ELLISON: Yeah. Great to be back, Michel. Thank you.
MARTIN: So tell me about the title of the conference, Take Back the American Dream. It implies that somebody else has it. I mean, who has it?
ELLISON: Well, the thing is, the American dream is up for grabs at all times, you know, and some people will project a vision of the American dream being strictly about private gain to the exclusion of our lives as Americans together. But we believe that the American dream is a dream that includes the private sector and the public sector, that it means that we're in this thing together when it comes to everything from disaster relief to police protection to national security to education, and that we should do what is done best together, together.
And I think that that dream is under assault from a certain sector of our community and so we're going to snatch it back from them and hold up an American dream that is inclusive and that means that we're going to invest in our public wealth, not just private gain.
MARTIN: Do you feel, though, that your ideas, like the set of ideas that animates this conference, is on the defensive?
ELLISON: Yeah. But, you know, it always has been.
MARTIN: And why? Why? You know, why is it?
ELLISON: Well, because, you know, you have other people offering a competing vision. I mean, like Koch brothers - their vision of America is a tiny wealthy elite in and vast amount of Americans struggling to sort of just survive. There are people who have a vision of America that exults the market. I call them market fundamentalists. And we respect the market, but we understand it's essentially a social institution made for and by people.
And so - yeah. So we are in a highly contested political environment around two competing - at least two competing visions for what our country is about. So - yeah - we're on the defensive, but we're also on the offensive. So we're standing up for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. We're standing up for civil rights. We're standing up for the environment.
And so that's really the spirit of the conference, you know, to say, yeah, we're defending our vision of the American dream, but we're also trying to advance that dream too.
MARTIN: I think there are those on the other side who would argue that the reason that the progressives are on the defensive is that their ideas haven't worked and that they're looking at kind of the economic turmoil overseas in Europe right now and they're looking at the ongoing economic trouble in this country and they're saying, you've had your run and your ideas haven't worked and it's time to try something else. What would you say to that?
ELLISON: I'd say that Social Security's one of the most successful programs in the history of the United States. It lifted seniors out of poverty. It lifted people with disabilities out of poverty. Medicaid and Medicare have done the same thing. Civil rights have made this America live up to its deepest aspiration, which is liberty and justice for all.
I mean, you know, the progressive program has, in fact, worked, but it depends on whose perspective you're talking about. If you are the Koch brothers, if you are people who believe that there should be a wealthy generational elite in America, it may not have worked very well because now you've got all these people of diverse colors and backgrounds and religions that you have to now compete for and have to live with and have to respect. So it may not work for them. It may not work for people whose vision of America is a country club.
MARTIN: You keep invoking the Koch brothers. That's Charles and David Koch. They are...
MARTIN: ...known as significant funders of conservative and libertarian movements and institutions, like the Cato Institute, for example, and others. I noted that you seem very concerned about funding issues, in fact to the point that you're on a panel called Overturning Citizens United, a movement moment. Citizens United, of course, is the Supreme Court decision that opened the door to these so-called superPACs that allow individuals to give unrestricted amounts of money under certain conditions.
So why do you think that this is so important and what are you going to be talking about in your panel?
ELLISON: We have seen explosive growth in the role of money - already was a problem, but since Citizens United it's gotten much, much worse. So, for example, in Wisconsin, $60 million spent, about $10 million of that from the Democratic side, another - the balance from the other side. And basically, we didn't have a real competition of ideas. We had a competition of money, and that's been a problem even before Citizens United, but Citizens United put the money in politics problem on steroids.
I mean, we're talking about a campaign where the average citizen's voice really is getting drowned out by all of this money, so what if we said, look, let's overturn Citizens United, a court decision that said money is speech and that corporations are people and we said, no, people are people and speech is speech and Congress can regulate corporate speech and limit it, restrict it in a way that puts the genie back in the bottle and allows the natural person to be able to get out there and makes politicians compete for support with ideas, not just superior financial where-with-all.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison. He represents Minnesota's Fifth District. He's one of the speakers featured at the Take Back the American Dream conference. That's a gathering of progressives that's taking place in Washington, D.C.
Representative Ellison, though, why do you think this election is going to be as close as it appears that it will be? I mean, here is the...
ELLISON: Big money.
MARTIN: ...president who - well, let me just finish the question. I mean, here's a president who was resounded with the electoral college victory. Right. A decisive victory. Why do you think it's as close as it appears that it will be?
ELLISON: Because backlash is always a part of any social movement in this country. We got rid of slavery and then we had Reconstruction, but then we had the backlash to Reconstruction, didn't we? I mean, even today, you know, we fought for the rights of women to be equal in this society and now we see what I believe is actually - is a war on women.
And so, you know, there's always backlash and, you know, if progressives think that they're going to make real advances for the average American to be more fulfilled as a human being and have that reflected in policy and then, you know, the forces of reaction, like the Koch brothers - and, like I said, they're an icon for a broader movement - are just going to sit around and live with it, we're mistaken.
I mean, we weren't going to get historic health care and then just have the people who made so much money on the old status quo just sit back and say, well, I guess we lost that one. No. They're going to fight to keep those super profits that they were making under the old way. So we've got to be committed to what we believe in.
MARTIN: Is this, though - you attribute the intensity of our politics of the moment and the expected closeness of the presidential campaign to a backlash against the president's agenda, values? Or is it a failure of political skill on the part of the president and his team that he has been unable to persuade more Americans of the correctness of his vision?
ELLISON: Well, of course, these things get wound up in each other. I'm sure the president could have made better moves. He's, after all, a human being. Right? But at the end of the day, if the president would have done everything perfect, there would still be the backlash. I mean, look at it. I mean, these folks won't take up any of the president's American Jobs Act. They won't - even some of these ideas contained in the American Jobs Act are Republican ideas, but they won't take these ideas up because, as Mitch McConnell said, you know, we're going to make him a one-term president.
This is about them saying no to the first president who really reflects popular will from the standpoint of staying out of these wars, investing in the middle class, all Americans can make it if they work hard. You know, they don't want that. They want the president, you know, to be like the president of some elite fraternity or a country club and that's why they're all behind Mitt Romney. I mean, who is a better example of, you know, privilege in this society? I mean, he's like a poster child for it.
MARTIN: What are you going to walk out of this conference hoping to have accomplished?
ELLISON: A greater sense among progressives that, despite any misgivings they may have about the president or his team, that we have an election to win and that this election is fundamentally about values, not about a person, and that the values on the line are basically selfishness exulted to a political philosophy versus community versus all of us in this thing together versus peace versus real economic opportunity. And we need to galvanize progressive support for that agenda and for those set of values.
MARTIN: Keith Ellison is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He is a Democrat who represents Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District. He joined us from the recording studios on the House side on Capitol Hill.
Representative Ellison, thanks so much for speaking with us.
ELLISON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.