Corporate Personhood & the Death of Democracy

Thursday January 21st, 2010 marks the end of whatever we might have had in the way of democracy.  The Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission solidifies corporate personhood, giving corporations the right to purchase elections.  This is not an entirely new happening.  Corporations have been backing candidates and effectively purchasing political power for quite some time; however, the corporatocracy is now solidified in that international corporations have equal rights as domestic ones to back candidates running for political office.  My mind goes to wealthy Arab, Japanese, Mexican, or otherwise, corporations investing in US domestic politics in order to legally bring about the policies that they desire. 

I’m not sure that those justices that supported this judgment (all republican appointees mind you) fully understand what they have done–or perhaps they do.  I read through Justice Stevens’ dissent.  It is about 90 pages long and is supported by the Sotomayor and the other liberal (or common sensical) justices.  A la Cheikh Anta Diop, Justice Stevens goes line for line explaining how ridiculous this judgment is–how unnecessary and ill-thought it is.

Nothing in [JUSTICE SCALIA’S] account dislodges my basic point that members of the founding generation held a cautious view of corporate power and a narrow view of corporate rights (not that they “despised” corporations, ante, at 2), and that they conceptualized speech in individualistic terms. (Justice Stevens)

Not a nascar jacket...this is the jacket worn by senate candidates

This new Supreme Court ruling further strengthens the argument that the “haves” determine the direction of society (local, national, and global in scope). Ultimately, we are voting with our dollars. When we spend money on a certain product, we are voting for that product. In effect, we vote against other products that we do not purchase, and in a very real way, our dollars may be the last vestige of socio-political power that we citizens have, considering that multinational corporations may now use the money we spend on their products to purchase political power. Can we imagine Walmart, Jack Daniels, M&M, and Macy’s overtly and legally backing a candidate for president?

This ruling denies us all even the appearance of democracy at work within political campaigns.

There is no need to take my side in the debate over the scope of the anticorruption interest to see that the Court’s merits holding is wrong. Even under the majority’s “crabbed view of corruption,” McConnell, 540 U. S., at 152, the Government should not lose this case…A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold. (Justice Stevens)

This ruling truly saddens me, and I am not completely sure why. I know enough of US history to know that this ruling only makes de jure that which has long been de facto.  It is interesting that we have rules governing the NCAA and whether student-athletes accept “gifts,” but we do not find it necessary to regulate who can contribute money to political campaigns.  Surely, the latter is far more important an issue, and indeed, the history of politics itself demands that we have such regulations.  Still, sports and entertainment offer no chances for direct political influence in the way that the world of Politics does.  There is far more to be loss and to be gained. 

We ought to think on these things.  Perhaps the destruction of party politics is long overdue—politics that have nothing to do with the people.  In fact, it is safe to say that political parties exist for the sake of political parties.  Perhaps the words, “for the people and by the people” need to come true rather than continue to be used as a political trope.  At this point, political parties are nothing more than domestic corporations, existing for the sake of the corporation.  (sigh)  I’ll leave you with some of the brilliance of Justice Stevens. 

While it is true that we have not always spoken about corruption in a clear or consistent voice, the approach taken by the majority cannot be right, in my judgment. It disregards our constitutional history and the fundamental demands of a democratic society. (Justice Stevens)

It is with regret rather than satisfaction that I can now say that time has borne out my concerns. The legislative and judicial proceedings relating to BCRA generated a substantial body of evidence suggesting that, as corporations grew more and more adept at crafting “issue ads” to help or harm a particular candidate, these nominally independent expenditures began to corrupt the political process in a very direct sense. The sponsors of these ads were routinely granted special access after the campaign was over; “candidates and officials knew who their friends were,” McConnell, 540 U. S., at 129. Many corporate independent expenditures, it seemed, had become essentially interchangeable with direct contributions in their capacity to generate quid pro quo arrangements. In an age in which money and television ads are the coin of the campaign realm, it is hardly surprising that corporations deployed these ads to curry favor with, and to gain influence over, public officials. (Justice Stevens)

It is an interesting question “who” is even speaking when a business corporation places an advertisement that endorses or attacks a particular candidate. Presumably it is not the customers or employees, who typically have no say in such matters. It cannot realistically be said to be the shareholders, who tend to be far removed from the day-to-day decisions of the firm and whose political preferences may be opaque to management. Perhaps the officers
or directors of the corporation have the best claim to be the ones speaking, except their fiduciary duties generally prohibit them from using corporate funds for personal ends. Some individuals associated with the corporation must make the decision to place the ad, but the idea that these individuals are thereby fostering their self expression or cultivating their critical faculties is fanciful. It is entirely possible that the corporation’s electoral message will conflict with their personal convictions…Today’s decision is backwards in many senses. It elevates the majority’s agenda over the litigants’ submissions, facial attacks over as-applied claims, broad constitutional theories over narrow statutory grounds, individual dissenting opinions over precedential holdings, assertion over tradition, absolutism over empiricism, rhetoric over reality. Our colleagues have arrived at the conclusion that Austin must be overruled and that §203 is facially unconstitutional only after mischaracterizing both the reach and rationale of those authorities, and after bypassing or ignoring rules of judicial restraint used to cabin the Court’s lawmaking power. Their conclusion that the societal interest in avoiding corruption and the appearance of corruption does not provide an adequate justification for regulating corporate expenditures on candidate elections relies on an incorrect description of that interest, along with a failure to acknowledge the relevance of established facts and the considered judgments of state and federal legislatures over many decades. In a democratic society, the longstanding consensus on the need to limit corporate campaign spending should outweigh the wooden application of judge-made rules. (Justice Stevens)

At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining selfgovernment since the founding, and who have fought
against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a
strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority
of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics. I would affirm the judgment of the District Court. (Justice Stevens)

In short, the Court dramatically overstates its critique of identity-based distinctions, without ever explaining why corporate identity demands the same treatment as individual identity. Only the most wooden approach to the First Amendment could justify the unprecedented line it seeks to draw. (Justice Stevens)

Are we now prepared to see a Netherland corporation purchase a president–how about a Saudi oil company? Perhaps OPEC nations should join together in purchasing a president and a cabinet? These concerns are very real folks. 

 We really should be up in arms in the streets over this ruling.  Guess what Americans, your vote counts that much less.  Enjoy it.

One thought on “Corporate Personhood & the Death of Democracy

  1. [Are we now prepared to see a Netherland corporation purchase a president–how about a Saudi oil company? Perhaps OPEC nations should join together in purchasing a president and a cabinet? These concerns are very real folk.]

    That’s exactly right. John Roberts needs to be impeached. He lied to congress when he claimed he would respect precedent.

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