America's story is one of defiant struggle against the odds for an improbable v i sion : t ha t a l l pe opl e , c r e a te d a n d b o r n f r e e a n d e q u a l , c a n l i v e a n d g ov er n t o g et h e r " i n t h e p ur s u i t o f h app i n ess . " This d r e a m o f a so c i e t y o f f r e e pe opl e w i t h e q u a l r i g h ts , wh e r e pe opl e g ov er n t h e m - se lv es , w a s u nli ke l y i n dee d i n t h e e i g h te e n t h c e n t u r y . I n a w orl d o f e mp i r es , g ov er n e d b y r o y a l t y a n d d i v i de d b y c l a ss , a n d i n o u r o wn c o u n t r y , w i t h mill io n s e ns l av ed , wh e r e w om en w e r e c o n sid e r e d t h e pro p er t y o f t h e i r h u sb a n d s , a n d wh e r e l a n d o w n e rs h i p w a s c o n si d e r e d a pr e r e q u i si t e t o p art i c ip a t io n i n g ov er n m e n t , t h e p ur s u i t --l e t a lon e t h e f ulï¬l l m e nt -- o f t h i s v i sio n w a s f a r - f e tc h e d i n dee d .
America's story is one of defiant struggle against the odds for an improbable vision: that all people, created and born free and equal, can live and govern together "in the pursuit of happiness." This dream of a society of free people with equal rights, where people govern them- selves, was unlikely indeed in the eighteenth century. In a world of empires, governed by royalty and divided by class, and in our own country, with millions enslaved, where women were considered the property of their husbands, and where land ownership was considered a prerequisite to participation in government, the pursuit--let alone the fulï¬llment--of this vision was far-fetched indeed.
Yet we Americans never let that vision go, despite dark days. In generation after generation, for more than two centuries, the power of this dream drove us and inspired the world. Despite all of the contradictions, shortcomings, missteps, and failures along the way, this basic American story remains true, and it is an undeniable triumph of the human spirit. Cynics and critics will have their say, but Americans really did come together to defeat the British Empire; to overthrow the evil of slavery and work for justice; to secure equal voting rights for women; to insist that everyone, not only the wealthy, has an equal vote and voice; to suï¬er, work, and ï¬ght year after year to defeat fascist, communist, fundamentalist, and totalitarian challenges to our vision of democracy, equality, and freedom.
People are free. People are equal. People govern. We have lived by that and died for that, and whenever we fell short, we worked and sacriï¬ced for that, to ensure, as Abraham Lincoln said in one of our darkest moments, "that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth."
To triumph again over powerful enemies of human equality, dignity, and freedom in our generation, we must properly identify the challenge and bring clarity of thinking and action to making our republic work again. As so often before, success and struggle begin with the simplest of propositions: Corporations are not people.
On January 20, 2010, the Supreme Court of the United States concluded, in eï¬ect, that corporations are people and have the people's First Amendment free speech rights. According to the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, we Americans cannot prevent corporations from using billions of dollars to control who wins and who loses elections or to control what our representatives in Congress and in state and local government do or do not do. In one stroke, the Court erased a century or more of bipartisan law and two previous Supreme Court rulings that aï¬rmed the right, if not the duty, of the people to regulate corporate political spending to preserve the integrity of American democracy. Eight months after Citizens United, we had the most expensive election in American history, with nearly $4 billion, much of it secret corporate money channeled and laundered through front groups, spent to deï¬ne who was good, who was bad, and what issues mattered. Nearly six out of ten eligible American voters did not even bother to vote.
Citizens United is not merely a mistake easily corrected, nor is the case simply about campaign ï¬nance or money in politics. Citizens United is a corporate power case masquerading as a free speech case. In many ways, the decision was less a break from the recent past than a proclamation about the sad reality of corporate power in America. The Court's declaration in Citizens United that corporations have the same rights as people must strike most Americans as bizarre. To the ï¬ve justices in the majority and to the corporate legal movement out of which they have come, however, it was more like a victory lap or an end zone dance for the three-decade-long campaign for corporate power and corporate rights.
This campaign, begun in the 1970s, had already succeeded in creating a corporate trump card to strike down federal, state, and local laws enacted for the public's beneï¬t. Even before Citizens United, the fabrication of corporate rights and the reality of corporate power controlled economic, energy, environmental, health, budget, debt, food, agriculture, and foreign policy in America.
The results? Massive job outsourcing abroad; destruction of our manufacturing capacity; wage stagnation for the vast majority of Americans and unprecedented enrichment of the very few; uncontrolled military spending and endless wars to secure energy supplies from a region from which we should have cut our dependence long ago; out-of-control health care spending at the same time that millions of people cannot get health care at all; bloated and unsustainable budgets and debt at every level of government; national and global environmental crisis; loss of wilderness and open land, and the takeover of public hunting and ï¬shing grounds; chain store sprawl and gutting of local economies and communities; obesity, asthma, and public health epidemics; and a growing sense that the connection between Americans and our government has been lost.
Bill Moyers, the acclaimed journalist, has been an optimist for much of his legendary career as he explored faith and reason, war and peace, and the progress of American democracy. Here is
what he said in Washington in late 2010:
Democracy in America has been a series of narrow escapes, and we may be running out of luck. The most widely shared assumption of our journey as Americans has been the idea of progress, the belief that the present is "better" than the past and things will keep getting better in the future. No matter what befalls us--we keep telling ourselves--"the system works."
All bets are now oï¬. The great American experiment in creating a diï¬erent future together has come down to the worship of individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power, with both political parties cravenly subservient to Big Money. The result is an economy that no longer serves ordinary men and women and their families. This, I believe, accounts for so much of the profound sense of betrayal in the country, for the despair about the future. . . .
America as a shared project is shattered, leaving us increasingly isolated in our separate realities.1
We do not have to live with this. We can put the American project back together again.