I get a real sense that many people, including some usually
very intelligent people, don’t understand the significance of the Supreme Court’s
“free speech” decision in Citizens United
v. FEC last week. That’s troubling, because we can’t work to fix a problem
unless we understand the problem.
First of all, if you’re one of those who think “corporate
personhood” is the culprit, you don’t understand the problem Used properly, “corporate personhood” is a good
thing. When you start a business, creating a corporate “person” separate from
yourself is a wise move, because it protects you and your family from liability
should anything bad happen during the business day. How many folks would choose
to not start businesses, if they knew they could lose everything, including the
family home and their retirement account, because of a slip and fall or
negligence by an employee or your little corporation? And let’s get real; the
overwhelming majority of corporations are extremely small; not everyone is
Exxon or Wal-Mart.
But corporations are not real "persons" under the law, and they were never meant to be. Put it this way; if we're interchangeable, then shouldn't we all pay the corporate income tax rate, since it's much lower than our rate?
And I would also point out that those of you who are using
this as a rationale for a greater push for campaign finance reform also miss
the problem. As those of you reading this blog for a while know, I am a strong advocate
for campaign finance reform (I've reposted a past column on this below…), although we part ways on the concept of public
financing; I just don’t think putting politicians in charge of the campaign
financing system is a good idea; call me crazy. But in this case, the more
limits you put on campaign financing, the more power you give to these
corporate “persons, because this case isn’t about corporations giving money to
No, this implications of this case are more insidious than that. This case has the
potential to do a lot more damage than anything we’ve had to deal with in a
while. Of course, the corporate-owned media is far too obsessed with John
Edwards’ “love child” or Heidi Montag’s (who the hell is she again? I have no
idea…) plastic surgery addiction to cover the greatest threat to our political
system in our history.Besides, it means a potential advertising windfall for them, so why should they complain, right?
The absurdity of this decision can’t be underestimated. At
the heart of this decision is the concept that plowing money into something
constitutes “speech,” and should be protected by the First Amendment. That, of
course, is absolutely ridiculous. These twits on the Supreme Court are so busy
focusing on the First Amendment of the Constitution that they’ve forgotten the
rest of the document, which is designed to make all "persons" equal. Essentially,
the five political members of the United States Supreme Court have essentially
said that people with more wealth deserve greater freedom of speech. In order
to kowtow to the First Amendment, they stood the rest of the document on its
The second concept that is absolutely ridiculous is that the
“person” created by incorporation is entitled to any rights whatsoever. I know
a lot of free speech “absolutists” think they should be, but how far should we
take the concept? Should we allow corporations to marry? Oh, wait; most if them are male, so that won't work, I guess. But does the freedom to be secure in our persons and homes mean the government can no longer demand an annual report? Seriously, how far do we take this?
Essentially, the problem created by the Supreme Court is not
easily solved, although there are ways to mitigate its effect. I suppose you might try to revoke the concept of “corporate
personhood,” even though that’s not the problem. But does anyone doubt that the
current political make up of the Supreme Court would rule against that? They’ve
already stupidly declared that corporate “persons” have rights, which is
already ridiculous on its face; they’re not likely to accede to a demand that such
“persons'” rights be taken away. .
And we can change all the campaign finance laws we want;
that will have no effect on this. The decision in Citizens United barely touches on campaign finance laws, which
restrict corporate donations to specific campaigns, so we're not talking about Exxon giving $1 billion to the Sarah Palin for President campaign; that is still illegal. No, this decision is more insidious,
because it allows corporations to use as much of their money as they want on
INDEPENDENT campaigns for issues and candidates. Basically, while they can’t
donate a billion dollars to a candidate’s campaign, they can now put together a
billion dollar ad campaign for or against a particular candidate. While they can't give $1 billion to Sarah Palin, apparently, they can finance and run independent "Sarah for President" ads. In fact, a defense contractor who wants a $50 billion defense contract can actually put
together a series of ad campaigns in favor of its own slate of candidates, all
of whom might promise the corporation a favorable vote on that particular
appropriation, and according to five morons on the Supreme Court, there is
nothing that can be done about it because such a deal is considered “free
Gee, I can't see how that could be detrimental to the system, can you?
It is also conceivable that political parties are done for.
Now, I know a lot of independents will cheer, but don’t; it’s not a
good thing at all. Like them or not, political parties are the ultimate
democratic instruments, in that they reflect their memberships; if you want to change the way the Democratic Party does something, you can join the party and vote to change it. Well, now, a group of, say, defense
contractors can put up their own candidates in all 50 states, and potentially
drown out all other candidates with their advertising, and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it. If the health insurance
industry is able to put up enough money to get 150 Representatives and 30
Senators elected, what are the odds we’ll ever see health insurance reform? Or
even if it passes with a strong public option or single payer,
what’s to prevent its repeal?
Under the new political order the Supreme have set up, it is
also possible to imagine large corporations with huge pockets buying up all of
the ad time in favor of certain candidates they support, and locking out
everyone else. Essentially, it allows politicians to be “sponsored” by certain
corporations. And because of this veneer of “independence,” there might be no
way to strike out against a particular politician for the bribery the Supreme
Court has just approved. Did they even consider that giving artificial “people”
with a lot of money more free speech rights than everyone else might create a “quid
pro quo” type of set up that is completely unworkable?
If you learn nothing else from this blog, learn this; this
shit has been 40 years in the making, and it’s not going away in one election
or two. What we saw last week was the consequence of 40 years of political
ineptitude on the part of progressives. We have to bear down and fight this
sort of thing, but we’re going to have to do it within the parameters we’ve
been given.We can't just get a few people elected and sit back and watch; we have to hold feet to the fire and we have to change attitudes.
This will not be easy.
I know I've uncharacteristically painted a very bleak
picture here, and I apologize for that, but this is important; far more
important than anything we’ve had to deal with in some time. This could be this
generation’s Plessy v. Ferguson if we don't act, and act properly.
But all is not lost. I just gave you a worst-case scenario
that probably won’t happen.But it could, and that's why we have to work hard over the long haul. We have to keep Democrats in power long enough to replace the five radicals now occupying the Supreme Court. And that may take a while. (Scalia should have been impeached a long time ago, but that's another column for another day…)
First of all, the gloom and doom in the above presupposes
that large corporations all act in concert with each other, which is almost
never the case. I predict what you’ll see, at least at first, is a bunch of
different corporations, each with a different agenda, running ads that counter each other. To that end, we should make sure Congress passes
disclosure laws that state exactly, in big, bold letters and long enough for
people to see it, exactly WHO is paying for and/or producing each advertisement.
Then we in the blogosphere should publicize that and make sure everyone knows
it. Every single ad Exxon (hypothetically, of course) runs for Sarah Palin should read, in big, bold letters, "This advertisement was presented by Exxon" for at least five seconds at either the beginning or end of the ad.
You see, the flaw in my scenario above lies in the reality
that most huge corporations like to try to please everyone. If they are
required to disclose their involvement in promoting a particular candidate or
cause, they risk alienating a lot of potential customers and clients who might
appreciate that candidate’s approach on one issue, but not his approach on
another. Plus, voters tend to resent being told how to vote. One of the major
reasons Coakley probably lost last week was because Massachusetts voters were
tired of being told they have to vote for her because she’s the one most like
Ted Kennedy, which was an insult.
If corporations have to disclose their involvement in a
campaign or issue, many won’t do it. Moreover, if a candidate is
obviously being “sponsored” by a large corporation, then everything he does
while in office we be scrutinized more closely, and he won’t stay in office
long, even if they can get enough voters behind a “sponsored” candidate.
Congress should also institute a requirement that any
independent campaign undertaken by a corporation be approved by shareholders; and
not a simple majority of shareholders, either, but a supermajority of at least
two-thirds. This will eliminate a lot of contenders.
Also, Congress will have to institute buying limits on
broadcast media. No one should be able to buy up all available ad time and lock
everyone else out on OUR airwaves.
But most of all, you should all realize that the biggest
problem here is that five Supreme Court Justices who voted in favor of this insanity are right wing political
hacks. (Hell, in a concurring opinion, Clarence Thomas even recommended no disclosure requirements; would someone please point to anything in the Constitution that requires the government protect your anonymity?) And they are there largely because
we didn’t do our job, and make sure the lesser of two evils got into office.
are living in neocon-land, folks, precisely because we don’t seem to understand
that in a democracy, the group who can corral the most votes wins. We have to
get average people on our side if we want to win. And to do that, we have to
persuade them, using their frames of reference and explaining to them how
adopting progressive stands on issues makes their lives better. If we want a
progressive majority in this country, we have to first get rid of the right
wing, and that means working with moderates to outnumber them.
There is really only one way out of the mess the Supreme
Court left us last week, and that is to fight back on a sustained basis for as
long as it takes. Advertising and propaganda only works in a vacuum, so we have
to do our best to make sure there is no vacuum. Keep speaking up, stop being
discouraged and stop preaching gloom and doom. This country survived Bush, for
Chrissakes; surely we can survive this.