Largely lost in the news about Haiti and the Massachusetts election, the U. S. Supreme Court may have driven a final nail into the coffin of American democracy this past week.
In a bold strike of judicial activism, the allegedly "restraintist" Court swept away efforts by state and federal governments to restrain corporate spending to influence election outcomes.
The Citizens United v. FEP decision is the culmination of an extended judicial history in which members of this unelected body have repeatedly ruled that efforts to limit spending abridge the first Amendment "free speech" rights of corporations and other big-spending groups.
Freedom of expression has repeatedly been defended as one of the most fundamental rights of a democracy. Yet by equating speech with spending, the court has not only distorted this fundamental principle, but has accelerated the decline of democracy.
For at least 30 years, corporations and their political allies have collectively enjoyed a near-monopoly in shaping our political discourse in good part by manipulating public opinion through their lavish spending.
Going back to 1970, American politics have been dominated by two fundamental trends, both of which accelerated sharply with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan.
The first trend was to turn politics over to the market, or in the infamous language of the Trilateral Commission to end the "excess" of democracy that occurred when much of the public rose up to demand greater equality, an end to a disastrous Vietnam war, and a greener planet.
The second trend, produced by the first, was a growing emphasis on news broadcasting as a form of attention-grabbing entertainment and a massive influx of money into emotionally manipulative election advertising.
As a result our corporate-dominated politics have produced wide-ranging results that contradict the interests and wishes of the majority of the people: a sharp redistribution of income (and opportunities for adequate health care) upward from the poor and middle-classes to the wealthy, two wars that the American public doesn't want, and a deepening ecological crisis.
The public is only too aware of these problems. Yet, our civic culture has deteriorated so profoundly that, in his aptly named Democracy Incorporated, the distinguished political theorist Sheldon Wolin has likened it to an "inverted totalitarianism."
In our depoliticized society, we are everywhere encouraged to shop, to seek the ease of privatized leisure, and to settle for a half-hour of news-as-entertainment. Our news is dominated by the latest scandal (Tiger Woods) or television crisis (will Jay Leno win back his old audience) or shocking cataclysm (Haiti's earthquake), all of which we can do nothing about except send money or tune in. Our role as citizens has been reduced to that of consumers of the spectacle.
And what a spectacle it is. For decades a lavishly funded attack campaign has been telling us that "government" is causing our problems and taking away our freedom. As a result, we have become angrier and angrier at government which seems to do less and less to solve the problems we experience.
The wealthiest news network, Fox News, thrives on this particular political spin, but the other networks don't do much better. The Right's emotionally manipulative populism provides a framework of attack, while the corporate-dependent Democrats frame their government solutions in ways that are least likely to deter the flow of corporate funding into their campaign coffers.
As a result, our choices in the political debate are between turning everything over to corporations or turning to a government that corporations dominate. Some choice!
The past year's debacle of banking bailouts, health care "reform," and tea party protests is only the most recent round of competing political spin in which the interests of everyday Americans are sacrificed.
As Professor Wolin put it, what we lack is "the political -- the commitment to find where the common good lies amidst the welter of well-financed, highly organized, single-minded interests rabidly seeking governmental favors and overwhelming the practices of representative government and public administration by a sea of cash."