Democracy and fair elections in the US are in grave danger. What are we going to do about it?
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The Supreme Court's recent Citizens United ruling removed restrictions on the amount of money that corporations can use to campaign for their preferred candidates. The five justices who voted for the ruling endorsed the idea that corporations should enjoy the same constitutional rights as human beings.
Why is this ruling a threat to America?
Corporations are not human. They are legal creations. They don't eat, breathe the air, depend on health care, or do many of the other things that humans do. They exist to make a profit. Because of their wealth and size, corporations are far more powerful than humans.
The Citizens United ruling affirms the power of corporations to control the processes of regulation, taxation, and public policy, and to avoid accountability to the public.
For a hundred years, we've had laws limiting the power of corporations over our government, because government in a democracy exists to serve the people. Now that corporations can spend unlimited money to help candidates who serve their interests, politicians will more and more make decisions based on the demands of lobbyists rather than the people who elect them. Real health care reform? Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to curb global warming? Fair wages, benefits, safer workplaces? Forget about it.
Republican and Democratic politicians already take millions in corporate contributions. The Supreme Court's decision will cement the Democratic and Republican parties' status as subsidiaries of Wall Street, oil companies, defense contractors, insurance firms, media conglomerates, and other top corporations.
Election years will become the season of endless ads on TV and radio for candidates preferred by corporations. Candidates who speak for the public interest won't have a chance against the flood of misleading corporate propaganda. (If you think campaign ads are bad now....)
What can we do to bring back democracy?
" Click! Your TV remote is a powerful weapon. You don't have to listen to corporate lies and propaganda. When you see corporate-sponsored political ads on TV, press the mute button. Get your information about candidates from more reliable sources -- from newspapers, news web sites, and other sources that you trust. Don't believe the hype. Stay informed (read below for more background on corporate personhood and power).
" Take the 'Democracy For Humans' pledge: "I will vote for no candidate who takes corporate money." Let's elect candidates who work for our own best interests and ideals. Let's declare our independence from political parties and politicians who depend on corporate campaign contributions.
" Amend the US Constitution: demand a new amendment declaring that rights belong to people, not to artificial legal creations (corporations), that money is not speech, that everyone has the right to vote and every vote must be counted. Call your US Senators and US Representative, tell them to sponsor, promote, and vote for a 'Democracy For Humans' amendment -- or you'll never vote for them again. More information: www.movetoamend.org
(Sign the petition)
" Demand that Congress pass fair election laws. Congress can require that campaign advertising include full disclosure and reveal who paid. Congress can require TV and radio stations that use the public airwaves to broadcast ads by candidates who aren't swimming in corporate money. State legislatures can pass 'clean election' laws that assist candidates who don't take corporate checks.
" Help make 'corporate personhood' a major political issue. Write letters to the editor, call talk shows, post information online, challenge candidates at forums and debates. Talk to your family, friends, and neighbors.
" Urge your local city council to pass a resolution opposing corporate personhood. Arcata, California
, and other cities and towns have already passed such resolutions.
" Use street theater: public rallies, with puppets and other kinds of spectacle are a great way to educate the public.
Corporate Power vs. Democracy
Are corporations evil? Should we hate them? A corporations is an association, authorized by a charter, for a specific purpose. Corporations are by nature neither good nor evil. They often perform necessary functions, such as manufacturing, services, and trade.
A business corporation should be accountable to the public, not just to major stockholders, CEOs, and profit margins. When it betrays the public trust or commits a serious crime, a corporation should have its charter revoked and be dissolved.
When Exxon-Mobil, Lockheed Martin, Goldman Sachs, General Electric, Halliburton, Blackwater, or Disney have overwhelming power to determine the decisions of elected officials, our freedoms, rights, and well-being are in danger.
When Wall Street firms insisted that Congress strike down regulations like the Glass-Steagall Act, their recklessness caused the recent economic crisis, with milliions of lost homes and jobs. When they press Congress to reduce, privatize, or abolish successful safety-net programs like Social Security, they place millions of older Americans and others at risk of destitution.
When big-box chain stores like Wal-Mart are allowed to take over a town's economy, small businesses go under, Main Street falls into ruin, and minimum-wage no-benefit positions replace jobs with livable wages and good benefits.
When insurance companies can deny health coverage and medical treatment, people suffer and die.
When corporate polluters win exemptions from greenhouse gas emission laws, they endanger future generations.
When energy companies demanded control over oil resources in Iraq, the US went to war based on baseless claims about WMDs and other deceptions.
The Myth of Corporate Rights
A corporation is not human. A corporation is a thing. It's a legal fiction, subject to the definition in the corporation's charter and restrictions imposed by law.
A car is a thing, too. Can a car possess rights? No. A car does not have the right to drive down the street. It has no will of its own, so the idea of rights for cars is absurd. Instead, the car's driver has the right to drive the car down the street, within certain restrictions. The driver must have a driver's license and obey traffic rules.
It's just as absurd to say that a corporation has 'rights.' When we say a company has the right to advertise its goods or services, what we really mean is that we recognize that advertising is part of the normal function of a business corporation, just as transportation is the normal function of a car.
Like a car without a driver, a corporation has no will of its own. Its actions are guided by CEOs and other managers, owners and stockholders, a board of directors, or some combination of these people. They profit through the corporation, by receiving salaries and bonuses or through their investments in the corporation. When those who control the corporation use it to break the law, abuse their power, or violate the corporation's own charter, then the corporate charter should be revoked -- just as the driver who violates traffic rules may lose the use of his or her car.
Corporations have become enormously powerful. Who benefits from this power? Obviously, the CEOs, owners, stockholders, etc. (Employees may work for a corporation, but they have no say in how it is run, except through the influence of independent unions -- which have become increasing powerless in recent decades.)
What does it mean when a corporation can influence government to act on its behalf, even when such actions are harmful to the public or to its own employees? It means that the CEOs, owners, stockholders, etc. enjoy power far beyond what the rest of us possess as individual citizens.
Those who defend corporate personhood, corporate rights, and the Citizens Unlimited decision are arguing for an inequality that threatens the basis of our democracy. They support a new kind of aristocracy, an oligarchy of elite citizens who get their power from corporations.
CEOs, owners, stockholders, et al. already have the same constitutional rights as the rest of us. When they use their corporations, armed with the myth of corporate rights, to expand their power so much that they dominate political campaigns, legislation, and the public debate on important issues, then our democracy is doomed....
...unless We the People take back our democracy and our election system.
Where did Corporate Power Come From?
When the US Constitution was written, there was no mention of corporations. The writers and signers of the Constitution remembered how Great Britain had given the East India Company, Hudson Bay Company, and other firms enormous power over the colonies. For the first 100 years of US history, corporate power was restricted. Corporations were chartered for a limited period of time and did not have limited liability. They existed to serve the public good.
After the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Congress passed the 14th Amendment in 1868, which was intended to give freed black slaves equal protection under the law. But around the same time that racist Jim Crow laws were enacted, the protections of the 14th Amendment were in effect transferred from former slaves to corporations in a series of landmark Supreme Court decisions, beginning with Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886).
Hundreds of 14th Amendment cases were brought before the Supreme Court between 1890 and 1910. 19 of them involved the rights of Black Americans and 288 addressed the rights of corporations. The court sided with the corporations in more than 200 of these cases.
These decisions helped set off the Robber Baron Era of unrestrained corporate power, when factory workers suffered inhumane work conditions and farmers were at the mercy of unscrupulous banks and railroad companies.
Many Americans fought corporate power during the Robber Baron Era, seeking reforms like the eight-hour work day, job safety, and an end to child labor. Groups like the Populist Party and, eventually, progressives like Teddy Roosevelt were able to get laws passed restraining corporate power.
Throughout most ot the 20th century, unions fought for and won the 40-hour work week, benefits, workplace safety laws, job security, and good wages. Congress passed laws preventing the excesses that led to the Great Depression and enacted Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. By the middle of the 20th century, millions of Americans enjoyed an unprecedented degree of prosperity because of these battles.
Corporations resisted these reforms every step of the way.
Many reforms were reversed in the 1980s and 1990s, when Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton signed legislation striking down many regulations on corporations. They used rhetoric about 'big government' and manipulated fears about socialism to satisfy the interests of corporate lobbies, while wages and financial security for working people began to decline. During the George W. Bush administration, corporate honchos actually wrote new legislation for Congress to pass. Companies like Enron used 'corporate personhood' to claim that the government had no right to open up their books after they swindled people.
Despite promises of change, President Obama appointed Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, financial advisor Larry Summers, and others who espouse many of these same policies. The result has been multi-trillion-dollar bailouts for the Wall Street firms responsible for the current mortgage crisis and economic meltdown, with minimal help for suffering homeowners and people who've lost their jobs.
The Citizens United ruling eliminates one of the most important restrictions on corporate power and puts America in danger of a new Robber Baron Era.
The End of Democracy?
The Citizens United decision comes nine years after a similar 5-4 Supreme Court majority delivered the politically biased Bush v. Gore ruling, which voided legitimate votes, handed the White House to George W. Bush, and held that the Constitution doesn't guarantee anyone the right to vote.
Republicans benefit from the Supreme Court's recent ruling -- but so do many 'moderate' Democrats. In 2008, for the first time in recent history, the budget for lobbying, grassroots outreach, and advertising of the US Chamber of Commerce has surpassed the spending of both the Republican and Democratic National Committees.
'Moderate' Democrats and Republicans share a bipartisan addiction to corporate contributions and a dedication to the idea that government should primarily serve big business interests instead of the people they were elected to represent. In 2009, they made sure that any health care reform plan placed before Congress would protect insurance and pharmaceutical manufacturing companies and do as little as possible for people in need of medical treatment. They declared Medicare For All (single-payer national health care) "off the table" and sabotaged the public option.
These politicians shouldn't be called moderate. They're extremists who subscribe to an ideology of corporate power, profit, and privilege.
Media commentators and broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh have praised the ruling. Their goal is an America far different from the one envisioned by our Founding Fathers and Mothers and by all those who've fought for human rights, freedoms, and fairness for working people and those who are powerless. They've duped too many Americans into believing that what's good for insurance companies, Wall Street firms, defense contractors, and other behemoths is good for America.
"We the People" does not mean corporations. Unless we act now to defend the principle that free speech and other constitutional rights and protections belong solely to human beings, our democracy will be history.
Interview with Jan Edwards in Multinational Monitor magazine, October/November 2002
If you need help with actions against corporate personhood or if you have ideas, contact DUHC at 707-269-0984
(This article was originally published at Common Dreams
, February 13, 2010)