While the January 21st Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United vs. FEC can be viewed narrowly as granting corporations the right to spend unlimited funds in political contest, the 5-4 ruling is best understood as another victory by conservatives in their decades-long war on democracy.
Many Americans are unaware of this campaign. After all, the US is suffering from a savage recession while fending off attacks from murderous jihadis; meanwhile, a high level of distrust in government has many voters angry and disillusioned. Considering these grim conditions, it's understandable that most Americans remain oblivious of the biggest threat of all: the conservative crusade to turn our democracy into a plutocracy.
In 1971, conservatives responded to a call by Lewis F. Powell to reassert themselves by "financing think tanks, reshaping mass media and seeking influence in universities and the judiciary." The result was a well-financed, meticulously planned offensive waged on four fronts.
The primary mode of attack was economic. Conservatives waged no-holds-barred class warfare. Corporation taxes were lowered, as were those of the wealthiest individuals. This increased the gulf between the richest and poorest Americans, ripped apart the social safety net, and decreased social mobility. Working families lost confidence in the future.
A second front was political. Conservatives seized control of the Republican Party and used ideological litmus tests to purge the GOP of moderates. Republican candidates were required to take a "no new taxes" pledge and to subscribe to socially conservative positions.
A third initiative generated a pervasive conservative media presence, featuring conservative personalities and information conduits, such as the Fox News Channel. Millions were spent framing an omnipresent furtive conservative message. This led to familiar general themes - "government is the problem" - and focused responses to conservative hot buttons: estate taxes were branded as "death taxes;" gay marriage was opposed on the grounds that homosexuality was "a disease" that, if encouraged, would infect young people; healthcare reform was opposed because of spurious claims it would result in government control of all health services and "death panels" seeking to euthanize the elderly.
As they pursued their objective of turning the US into a plutocracy, conservatives spread disinformation to deflect blame from their ideas and the Republican lackeys that implemented them. For example, many Americans falsely believe government caused the financial crisis, whereas it was conservative profiteers who brought down the economy.
The fourth aspect of the conservative war on democracy was a protracted campaign to take control of the Federal judiciary. They accomplished this in 2006 with the resignation of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and the appointment of Justice Samuel Alito. Since then, a dogmatically conservative majority has controlled the US Supreme Court. As legal writer Jeffrey Toobin observed in his NEW YORKER article on Chief Justice Roberts, "In every major case since he became the nation's seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts [and his conservative allies] has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff."
The Citizens United vs. FEC decision strengthens the conservative position that corporations have "personhood" and therefore enjoy the same rights as ordinary individuals, including the right of free speech. In practical terms it means that corporations can spend unlimited funds in political contests. This decision has immediate political consequences, as it permits Republicans to deploy millions of dollars of "independent expenditure"Swift-boat ads in the mid-term elections. It also opens the door to foreign corporations spending money to influence USA political campaigns. (It grants corporations more rights than those enjoyed by human beings.)
Since 2001, Americans have repeatedly been warned about an external threat from jihadi terrorists. Unfortunately, during the same period, Progressives haven't done a good job warning Americans about the internal threat from the conservative crusade against democracy. As a consequence, conservatives have been extraordinarily effective: they elected a puppet President, George W. Bush - whose election was confirmed by five conservative Supreme Court justices. They purged the Republican party of all moderates. In 2009, guided by their conservative handlers, Republican Congresspeople waged a successful campaign to block the legislative initiatives of the Obama Administration. In many sections of the country, conservatives dominate the political message via conservative radio shows and the Fox News Channel. Meanwhile, the rich got richer while the assets and income of working families steadily diminished. The Citizens United vs. FEC decision indicates that conservatives are hell-bent on granting corporations ultimate power in the American political system.
It's time for progressives to wake up to the grave internal threat represented by the conservative jihad. It's time to defend democracy by passing meaningful campaign finance reform, denying the notion that corporations are persons, placing severe restrictions on corporations, and clamping down on the outrageous practices of Fox News Channel and other conservative voices.
It's time for progressives to get their act together, seize control of the message, and take the battle to conservatives. It's time for change we can believe in.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.