In a salutary reminder that written Constitutions and Supreme Courts don’t necessarily do what they’re supposed to do (guaranteeing the rule of law, protecting minorities from the majority) the US Supreme Court, long understood to be fundamentally right wing, has made a fundamental attack on democracy:
With a single, disastrous 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court’s conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.
Congress must act immediately to limit the damage of this radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy.
As a result of Thursday’s ruling, corporations have been unleashed from the longstanding ban against their spending directly on political campaigns and will be free to spend as much money as they want to elect and defeat candidates. If a member of Congress tries to stand up to a wealthy special interest, its lobbyists can credibly threaten: We’ll spend whatever it takes to defeat you.
It’s a terrifying if unsurprising ruling, yet corporations have been understood for over a century, indeed by the Supreme Court, to be people:
So it’s hardly a stretch for the US Supreme Court to then rule that these ‘people’ have the same rights as individuals to spend to guarantee their political interests. Or is it?
The majority is deeply wrong on the law. Most wrongheaded of all is its insistence that corporations are just like people and entitled to the same First Amendment rights. It is an odd claim since companies are creations of the state that exist to make money. They are given special privileges, including different tax rates, to do just that. It was a fundamental misreading of the Constitution to say that these artificial legal constructs have the same right to spend money on politics as ordinary Americans have to speak out in support of a candidate.
The majority also makes the nonsensical claim that, unlike campaign contributions, which are still prohibited, independent expenditures by corporations “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” If Wall Street bankers told members of Congress that they would spend millions of dollars to defeat anyone who opposed their bailout, and then did so, it would certainly look corrupt.
In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens warned that the ruling not only threatens democracy but “will, I fear, do damage to this institution.”
It’s a deeply ideological decision, and one which fundamentally threatens the US political process, but it’s very much the next step in a series of such Supreme Court decisions on the rights of corporations, starting as far back as 1886. From Riki Ott:
The expansion of corporate rights began over 200 years ago as the anti-corporate fervor from the American Revolution began to fade. The U.S. Supreme Court blurred the distinction between “natural persons,” or real living human beings, and “artificial persons” — corporations — in 1886 when it conferred the 14th Amendment right of “equal protection of the laws” to an artificial person, a railroad corporation in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. Since then, the Supreme Court has handed out other human rights to artificial persons (corporations), including the battery of First Amendment rights leading to Citizens United.
There were early attempts to reverse parts, but not all, of the trend to give human rights to corporate persons. Specifically, under First Amendment issues, Congress passed the Tillman Act in 1907 to prohibit corporate expenditures in candidate elections to end an era of big money corruption and usher in campaign finance regulation. However, regulating something allows it to happen to the extent allowed by law and laws can change.
Starting in the 1970s, the Supreme Court began to chisel away our election integrity by granting corporations First Amendment rights including: “commercial speech,” as in free speech equals money; “political speech,” as in unlimited corporate spending for ads to overturn citizen initiatives; “negative speech,” as in the right not to speak and disclose harmful contents of products; and “false speech,” as in the right to blatantly lie in advertising under the guise of let the buyer beware. “Robust speech” or unlimited corporate spending on elections is just the next chip to fall from our First Amendment protections. It may be the last chip as there’s really nothing left to protect from corporate usurpation.
Barack Obama is right when he says this ruling strikes at democracy itself. He and America’s other elected representatives really do need to get their act together and develop a legislative response to this crazy decision. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissenting opinion said:
corporations are different because they “have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. “… They are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”
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