For a fleeting moment, corporate America looked like it would stop subsidizing efforts to undermine democracy. On January 6, insurrectionists instigated by former President Donald Trump and several high-ranking Republicans stormed the Capitol, and eight senators and 139 representatives refused to certify President Joe Biden’s victory. In response, companies made lofty promises to never again support politicians who tried to overthrow U.S. democracy. But most of the companies that made these promises are now back to enabling politicians who still unapologetically support the attempted coup. (Mostly “indirectly” via loopholes in our campaign finance system.)
But we take away the wrong message if we think of this as a failure of corporations to live up to their civic responsibility. Corporations have no structural interest in a functioning democracy; they’re interested in a government that responds primarily to their needs, and their need is to amass as much wealth as possible.
Corporations are nothing more than a legal vehicle to encourage investment. Investors in corporations receive liability protection — if the corporation goes belly-up, they lose their investment, but they are not liable for the corporation’s debts — and in return they give up control over the day-to-day management of their investment. As machines to encourage investment, corporations are an unparalleled success.
However, the dangers of letting wealth-accumulation machines engage in politics was so obvious that they were banned from doing so from 1907 until 2010. That year, the Supreme Court abandoned any common-sense understanding of corporations’ proper role in our democracy. In its notorious Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, the court enabled corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money from their own treasuries to influence elections.
But what do corporations “say” with political spending? Unsurprisingly, corporations advocate for policies that allow them to amass more wealth, adding to the already lopsided “wealth primary” in this country. This ensures that — with few exceptions — only elected officials who have accepted money from corporate interests can run viable campaigns. This creates a government that is usually more responsive to corporate interests than the public interest.
Given this, why would anyone expect corporations to stand up for democracy? So long as the political system is not so chaotic that it affects their bottom line — and there is evidence that the next coup will be in courts, not in the streets — corporations have no interest in a legal system that is responsive to the general public. At best, they are agnostic toward an authoritarian regime. At worst, they might welcome it as a more robust protector of their property than democracy.
To save our democracy, we can’t rely on corporations — we need to understand that they are standing in the way. Not because they are evil, but because they are acting exactly how they were constructed to act: to amass as much wealth as possible. Corporate political spending isn’t part of the solution; it’s part of the problem.
We need to respond by limiting corporate influence on the political process. In the short term, that means supporting innovative legislation that works within current Supreme Court precedent by banning political spending by corporations under substantial foreign ownership, and limiting contributions to super PACs. In the longer term, we must reform the Supreme Court and amend the Constitution to reverse the disastrous Citizens United decision.
Forty-three years ago, Supreme Court Justice Byron White dissented in the first Supreme Court case to grant corporations the right to spend their treasury funds to directly influence the political process in a case that foreshadowed Citizens United. He warned that the decision threatened to allow corporate interests, who “control vast amounts of economic power” to “dominate not only the economy, but also the very heart of our democracy, the electoral process.” The First Amendment, he argued, did not force the public to allow “its own creation to consume it.”
The January 6 insurrection and the craven corporate response reminds us that we must reclaim the promise of a true democracy in our country, responsive not to corporate slush funds but to the people of the U.S.