The expanding rights of corporate “people” are creating an ever-greater gap between America’s democratic ideals and political reality.
Published in the December 2010 issue of the New Internationalist.
Shortly before the U.S. midterm elections, the on-line activist group MoveOn announced that it had acquired a leaked memo documenting the creation of a new organization, RepubliCorp™.
“The Cabal of Multinational Corporations,” the memo read, “is pleased to formally announce… our complete merger with the Republican Party. RepubliCorp™ combines the ethics-free campaigning savvy of the GOP with the limit-free spending power of Corporate America™.”
It added, “With the recent Citizens United ruling finally placing the United States government on the open market, RepubliCorpTM is now perfectly positioned to lead our hostile takeover bid.”
The memo was, of course, a farce. But it came complete with a true-to-life flow chart of how big business funds circulate through an intertwined network of pro-corporate media outlets, faux-grassroots political organizations, and the campaigns of Wall-Street-friendly candidates.
Late in its era of imperial supremacy, America holds to a cherished notion of its exceptionalism, the idea that its national ethos and democratic values give it a singular place among the countries of the world. But nothing is less exceptional on our planet of Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern oil barons, engorged Chinese party officials, and transnational Davos elites than the principle that money rules.
The United States may be unique only in that it considers the ascendency of its corporations as an extension of its democratic liberties. The landmark 5-4 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case last January not only affirmed the concept that corporations should be legally regarded as free “people”—as they have been in the United States since the late 1800s. The court, wiping out a century’s worth of subsequent restrictions on corporate behavior, also insisted that these curious individuals must be treated no differently than everybody else.
This, despite the fact that corporate “people” possess personality traits that you would be hard pressed to find in anyone you’d meet in a stroll through your typical neighborhood. For starters, they possess no moral conscience, they can live in perpetuity, and they often have war chests that make the resources available to most of us natural born mortals look like wee penny purses.
Not to worry, states the U.S. Supreme Court. Hefty outlays in support of candidates do not actually influence politicians once in office. In the words of the majority ruling: “there is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate” elected officials to those who spend on their behalves.
Despite their reassuring intent, these sense-defying contentions have provoked concern. Democrats argue that permitting corporate actors to operate unregulated and in the dark might enable foreign donors to unduly influence domestic elections. (A fair point, although these Dems have voiced notably less apprehension about whether funds from U.S. corporations or from the National Endowment for Democracy have perverted the domestic politics of other countries.)
Likewise, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich holds that a “perfect storm” has descended upon the nation: “an unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top, a record amount of secret money flooding our democracy, and a public in the aftershock of the Great Recession becoming increasingly angry and cynical about government” have together allowed for the “Big Money Takeover of America.”
Perhaps. Yet many would argue that this takeover was already well underway by the time of the Clinton administration which Reich served—the same one that oversaw the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the creation of the World Trade Organization. Indeed, the most farcical element of the MoveOn memo may have been that it exempted the Democrats from scrutiny.
For as much as corporate money is now pushing the frontiers of the Right, it has constrained the imagination of American liberals, President Obama included. The White House’s determination to keep private insurance companies “at the table” ensured a pre-compromised health care reform bill that does nothing to roll back the power of these lobbies. Those forces that kept serious Wall Street regulation at bay were the same financial interests that lavishly donated to Obama’s 2008 campaign.
The problem of money in politics is not a new one, nor is it the province of only one political party. But the post-Citizens United state of the country—in which we are told to treat the corporate “persons” who bully and dominate our politics as just regular folks—should nevertheless raise an alarm. It should highlight a reality that has not yet dawned on exceptionalist America: That it, too, is in need of a pro-democracy movement.