In what kind of a country is money considered free-speech? In what kind of a country is a legal construct considered a person? It is definitely not a country to which one would apply the term “democracy.”
It is stunning to consider where we have come along the spectrum from democracy to plutocracy. The ruling by the Supreme Court on April 2, 2014 (McCutcheon v FEC) was one of the most egregious blows to democracy that our country has ever seen.
Certainly previous rulings, such as Citizens United v FEC, set up the current ruling. The Supreme Court ruled in McCutcheon vs FEC that there could be no overall contribution limits on what an individual could donate to campaigns, whereas in Citizens United vs FEC, the court ruled that there could be no limits on how much an entity could give to any campaign. Those entities include organizations such as corporations, lobbies, and labor unions. Both of the Supreme Court decisions link back to a 1976 Supreme Court decision in Buckley v Valeo in which the court effectively ruled that money equals free-speech. This was a challenge to an amendment to the 1971 law that created the Federal Election Commission – The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which was aimed at controlling campaign funding.
The Un-Public Voices
When you combine the “money equals free-speech” decisions and the evisceration of all attempts to control unlimited funding of campaigns with the concepts of corporate personhood, a legal scenario emerges that is truly frightening. This is particularly true if one is operating within a democracy. Effectively what has been crafted is a complete handover of our political structure to those who have the most money to buy it. In other words, the United States has moved from a society which was a putative representative democracy (eligible citizens selecting representatives to be decision makers) to a plutocracy (rule by the rich). The republicans used to like to remind us that the US is a “republic,” thereby reinforcing the concept that it is not a free democracy. This becomes increasingly important as the contexts around who is part of the “public,” and who gets represented shift. Certainly a significant part of the overall strategy of moving the United States away from a representative democracy with the broad citizen public as the voters, and into a different form of republic where the rich and corporations are the voting “public,” is to redefine who gets to vote. This goes directly to the attack on broad enfranchisement of voters. This process of disenfranchisement is taking three primary paths:
1) The gerrymandering of districts to weaken the voting power of those who traditionally do not vote Republican (poor and working class, people of color, and traditionally Democratic districts). This had its largest public airing with the “Texas Eleven” who fled to New Mexico for 46 days in 2003 to block a redistricting vote placed on the Texas floor by Republicans.
2) Recrafting voting rights through various mechanisms involving combinations of voter ID and “purging” of the voter rolls, and at the federal level the undermining of the Voting Rights Act (we can once again thank the Supreme Court for eviscerating that Act of the Constitution).
3) Promulgating the idea that voting is meaningless and big government overrides the people’s needs. This strategy has been used to shrink the numbers of those who actually vote, and the smaller the population, the smaller a voting block one needs to push forward a minority or special interest agenda. This also nicely sets up the idea of “shrinking” government in almost all forms and privatizing (corporatizing) its functions.
There have been three primary “forces” in this transformed voting and government: Ronald Reagan, Paul Weyrich (1942-2008) and Grover Norquist.
– The “Reagan revolution” continues to unfold; from the pro-corporate focus, to the undermining of government. Reagan was openly anti-government. One of his often quoted statements is “”government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” (Reagan’s inaugural address, 1981 Heritage Foundation).
– Paul Weyrich could almost be called the founder of the modern neo-conservative movement. In a speech to a Christian Convention in Texas in 1980, Weyrich stated (from YouTube video):
“Now many of our Christians have what I call the “goo-goo syndrome.” Good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Weyrich was the founder or cofounder of the following organizations: Heritage Foundation, Christian Voice, Moral Majority, Council for National Policy, co-publisher of Conservative Digest, America’s Voice TV, Free Congress Foundation, and most significantly, he was the founder of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council – more about this below). He also wrote the book “The Integration of Theory and Practice: A Program for the New Traditionalist Movement” that some consider the training manual for the activist religious Right.
– Grover Norquist is the founder of Americans for Tax Reform. He is also famous for saying “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” (Quote Wise) He got Republican congresspeople to sign a no-tax pledge which is at the base of the Republican and Tea Party contingent strategy to sink the government.
(There has also been the illegal tactic of calling voters and effectively threatening them into not voting, or using scripts that misdirect them in some way – sometimes “robo-calling” has been used in this manner.)
SCOTUS and the Corporations – Chamber Music Please
Many argue the Roberts’ court is the most corporate-friendly court since at least World War II (Epstein, et al, Minnesota Law Review, Vol 97: 1431-1472, “How Business Fairs in the Supreme Court”). Various protections are being offered to corporations that essentially isolate and protect them from virtually any claim or harm. So not only are corporations being argued to be corporate persons within the constitutional sense of the law, but they are increasingly becoming inviolate in that personhood. Those rulings include (according to Brent Kendall of the Wall Street Journal):
Supreme Court Comes to Defense of Business, (WSJ, 6/23/2013).
“The Supreme Court ruled this session that:
– Comcast Subscribers alleging anti-competitive practices couldn’t proceed as a class action because there was no good way to determine monetary damages.
– Royal Dutch Shell Allegations that Shell was complicit in human-rights violations overseas couldn’t be tried in US Court.
– American Express A class-action lawsuit over card fees couldn’t proceed because merchants were bound by a contract they had signed with the card issuer.”
And who is the perpetual player in this theft of democracy; this construction of corporatocracy; this rise of the plutocrats? Why none other than the hiding in plain sight, ubiquitous in virtually every town and city in the United States; Chamber of Commerce. Yes this friendly “welcome to our town;” bring on the conventions; here’s your visitor’s map folks are truly the Mr. Hyde within Dr. Jekyll (Robert Lewis Stevenson, 1886).
The Chamber of Commerce has been behind many of the cases before the Supreme Court expanding corporate rights and protections. They are also the cornerstone of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) that is pushing conservative and pro-corporate legislation in every state in the Union (see ALEC Exposed). According to a study (How Business Fairs in the Supreme Court) by Lee Epstein, William Landes, and Richard Posner in the Minnesota Law Review (Volume 97),
Adam Chandler also did a study of the court, and he found that pro-business and anti-regulatory groups submitted more than 75% of the amicus briefs for the Court. They found that the leading “petition-pusher” was the Chamber with 54, over the three years studied. Further, the Chamber led the pack:
It was “the country’s pre-eminent petition pusher,” with 54 filings in the period. It also had an enviable success rate: the court grants one out of every hundred petitions; for ones supported by the chamber, it granted 32 percent.”
In terms of the pro-business leanings of the court, Chandler notes:
“Overall, the ideological cast of the new entrants is more conservative, anti-regulatory, and pro-business than that of those they replaced. To varying degrees, all seven of the new entrants have conservative profiles, whereas several of those left off the list this year, like the Society of Professional Journalists and the National League of Cities, have no obvious ideological bent. Five years ago, I wrote that “the list of top amici is dominated by pro-business and anti-regulatory groups – such groups hold over half the slots in the top sixteen.” Now they hold over three-quarters.”
Beyond Corporate “Personhood”
There is a frightening reality behind the push for “corporate personhood,” and the efforts to block attempts to make corporations accountable. That reality is that while “corporations” on paper and in operation are not people, the benefits that accrue to corporations do accrue to people. The primary benefactors are the real owners, major stockholders, and top management. Their earnings are protected within the fictive walls of the corporation. Tax breaks given to corporations benefit their “investors,” owners and management. When these are also backed by tax cuts and loopholes for wealthy individuals, then the super rich get a doubled benefit.
People in the United States have drummed into them the huge lie that “What’s good for business is good for us.” When corporations hide defects that end up maiming and killing people, or pollute the environment and cause cancers and birth defects, or exploit their workers, or make platinum deals of no taxes, and development with cities and states, the costs go to the community, the workers, and the nation. The benefits of such practices, however; accrue to the owners and managers of the corporation.
When legislatures and the Supreme Court rule in favor of corporations and de-regulation; when they decide to protect corporations from citizens, workers, and consumers, once again it is the owners and operators of the corporations who benefit and the rest of us who pay the costs.
When (republican and libertarian) legislators argue against the minimum wage and the “living wage,” they are protecting the interests of “business” and not workers and communities. Because the minimum wage has not kept up with the cost of living, and wages across the board have largely been stagnant, more and more workers qualify for Medicaid while the employers have cut health insurance. Workers qualify for food stamps and even welfare, while their pay, hours, and benefits have been eroded. In other words, corporations have shifted part of the cost of labor to the “government” (read the non-owners or all of us). One might ask, if the bottom of the wages are removed entirely (as republicans and libertarians desire) who gains? It certainly is not “us” or the “consumer” for it is our wages and our benefits on the line, and it is us paying through our taxes, to keep workers afloat while corporations bring in higher (protected) profits for the owners.
What Is Happening Here? The Creation of Super Citizens.
What we see happening is certainly the construction of a plutocracy to replace what we thought was a democracy. The super rich are not just people with wealth who can influence politics, shape opinion, and control virtually every aspect of our lives. They are not just “rich.” When the issues of money, the manipulation of legislation and voting, and the protection of corporations are combined, you have in front of you “Super Citizens.” The benefits of “corporate personhood” are the armor surrounding super citizens who are largely invulnerable to both individuals and institutions.
What we see is not just a “business friendly” environment that will somehow benefit us, for it will not. For every right and protection granted the corporation and those with extreme wealth, much is taken from the rest of us. Somehow this reality must be presented to the public. Otherwise, the general apathy of the citizenry will eventually lead to at best indentured servitude. We are already skating perilously close to that abyss.
Adam Liptak. “Corporations Find a Friend in the Supreme Court.” NY Times, May 4, 2013.
Adam Liptak. “Justices Offer Receptive Ear to Business Interests.” NY Times. Dec. 19, 2010.
EcoWatch. Supreme Court Denies Family Farmers the Right to Self-Defense From Monsanto Lawsuits . Jan 13, 2014.
John Burton. Supreme Court bars US lawsuits against overseas human rights abuses, WSWS. April 23, 2013.
John Andrews. More Pro-Corporate Rulings by Supreme Court, WSWS. June 26, 2013.
Arthur R. Miller. Days in Court, and Trials on the Merits: Reflections on the deformation of ederal procedure. NYU Law Review. March 19, 2012.