Thursday, January 21, 2010

The United Corporations of America

"Why the—matter is simple enough. A Congressional appropriation costs money. ... a high moral Congressman or Senator here and there — the high moral ones cost more, because they give tone to a measure; then a lot of small-fry country members who won't vote for anything whatever without pay — say twenty at $500 apiece, is $10,000; a lot of dinners to members — say $10,000 altogether; lot of jimcracks for Congressmen's wives and children—those go a long way — you can't sped too much money in that line — well, those things cost... in a lump, say $10,000.

"Perhaps the biggest thing we've done in the advertising line was to get an officer of the U. S. government, of perfectly Himmalayan official altitude, to write up our little internal improvement for a religious paper of enormous circulation — I tell you that makes our bonds go handsomely among the pious poor. * * * Give me a religious paper to advertise in, every time; and if you'll just look at their advertising pages, you'll observe that other people think a good deal as I do—especially people who have got little financial schemes to make everybody rich with."

-- Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age (1873)
Yesterday's 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision in United Citizens v. Federal Election Commission was a blatantly political act that severely undermines the integrity of the Supreme Court itself; first, by the anomalous manner in which the court majority rendered its opinion, and second, by the radical and thorough re-writing it has given virtually the entire U.S. Constitution.

Not only that but, as senior Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens writes in dissent, the majority decision also "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation." By green-lighting unlimited corporate and, now, unregulated corporate spending to influence elections, the majority decision endangers our very democracy.

"We the people..." now effectively reads "We, the corporations..."

As the New York Times editorialized this morning, five right-wing "justices overreached and seized on a case" presented by both sides as involving only a narrow issue. It then "rushed the process of hearing the case at breakneck speed," broadened the issue to encompass all corporate financing of federal and state elections, and then overruled a century of precedents which had allowed reasonable regulation to prevent the corrosive and corrupting influence of corporations in political campaigns.

As Justice John Paul Stevens points out in dissent, it was the five right-wing justices themselves who "manufactured" the issue of whether federal and state election regulations were "facially unconstitutional." While the case was still young, the corporate party told the trial court it had "expressly abandoned" any broader constitutional challenge. Yet, the Supreme Court majority on its own elected to address that issue anyway, well after the opportunity to make a record on the issue had passed.

Beyond this suspiciously unusual procedure, at the core of the Court's majority opinion are two breathtaking propositions: (1) there is no reason to suppose corporate money spent in behalf of political candidates will distort political campaigns or corrupt politicians; and (2) in any event corporations are "persons" and therefore should enjoy complete freedom to speak, publish, advertise, and promote their views in all federal, state, and local elections just as human people do.

If anyone on this earth can read that first proposition without snorting coffee all over the table, he must be one of the five justices who wrote it. As for the second proposition, as Dahlia Lithwick puts it, the Court has just turned "a corporation into a real live boy." This, from five self-proclaimed "strict construction" justices who claimed to advocate "judicial restraint." It is beyond parody.

What's more, as one corporate shill excitedly mentioned on the radio yesterday, corporate "persons" won't have to buy every one of the politicians. All it will take is one or two billion dollars poured into a couple of Senate and House races, here and there, or a few city council or county commissioner races. Then, whenever a corporate "person" needs a little piece of legislation enacted, all it has to do is send a paid lobbyist -- they're real people, too, you know -- to have a friendly little chat with the rest of the congressmen about how they could be next.

As Justice Stevens writes:
The majority’s unwillingness to distinguish between corporations and humans ... blinds it to the possibility that corporations’ “war chests” and their special “advantages” in the legal realm... may translate into special advantages in the market for legislation.
Truly, we are living in a Gilded Age again. Your "high moral Congressman or Senator" and "small-fry country" politician at every level of government is back on sale. You can't afford them, but the "real persons" named Exxon-Mobile, Walmart, Goldman Sachs, and AT&T can.


Anonymous said...

Juan Cole wrote a good piece on this, too.

"For all these reasons, a much greater danger to the republic than the anointing of corporations as persons with the right to flood our airwaves with propaganda is any attack on Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality is the principle that my blog is inexpensive to publish and to access, so that I and my readers have the same advantages in this regard as a corporation would. If the Right Wing ever manages to scale the internet and make me pay $70,000 a year to put up this blog and have it easily available to my readers, it will kill it and would signal a return to push media like the networks. And a push-media world where corporations own the Web and can push at us what they please, including their weird ideas about political reality, really would be Orwellian and dangerous.

This horrible ruling, bad as it is, is not the Waterloo of democracy. The abolition of Net Neutrality would be."

Another voice well worth listening to.

BLehman said...

I call your link to a sociologist and raise you one law professor.