Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Growing Corporate Control over our Democracy

It is hard to think of a Supreme Court decision in recent times that has caused so much outrage and downright fear that democracy in the US as we know it may well be dead.

A recent New York Times editorial,
The Court's Blow to Democracy began this way.

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.
MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann in his Special Comment,
Freedom of speech has been destroyed said that this ruling may actually have more dire implications than the infamous Dred Scott Decision which held that persons of African descent cannot be, nor were ever intended to be, citizens under the U.S. Constitution.

President Obama who is not known for hyperbole, labeled the Supreme Court decision as "devastating" his
latest weekly address. And this from somebody who spent 12 years as a constitutional law professor.

But on the other side was the dependably conservative Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal declaring the decision as
A Free Speech Landmark.

…yesterday the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision supporting free political speech by overturning some of Congress's more intrusive limits on election spending.

In a season of marauding government, the Constitution rides to the rescue one more time.
This brings up two important questions. Is a corporation entitled to all of the same constitutional protections as ordinary people? Many have asserted that a corporation is little more than a government created mechanism to limit the personal liability of those who run it and that this mechanism should not be treated in the same way as a real live person.

Furthermore, before the decision, all people, including those who run the corporations were able to participate in and fund elections on their own. Now with this latest ruling, those who run corporations can now also use the corporate profits as they choose to without limits in order to influence elections. Especially for the larger, more profitable corporations, this ‘double dip’ confers enormous financial power over elections to a very small group of CEOs and board members.

Even more important is the question, Will this increase in free speech for the corporations adversely affect the free speech of everybody else? It is worth noting that this decision does not affect the law prohibiting corporations from directly funding candidates’ campaigns. After all, this would presumably have a corrupting effect on the democratic process! But corporations now have the next best option which is to run ads of their own that directly support or oppose candidates. Especially with the enormous amounts of money available to some corporations to influence elections, why would this be any less corrupting?

The political right defends this as free speech, but even they know that the protection of free speech is not absolute. For example, one cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre because of the harm it could do to others. But because of this decision, the infusion of large amounts of corporate money in elections can do a great deal of harm to the free speech of others.

For example, take a Senate race in a sparsely populated state. If large amounts of corporate money are used to back a particular candidate, it can be almost impossible for the opposition candidate to raise enough money to effectively compete since there are so few available donors there. Something is wrong when a corporation based anywhere in the US, even with some foreign control can exert a stranglehold on a Senate race in say, North Dakota which will have an election to replace retiring US Senator Byron Dorgan. Of course unions can also pour money into campaigns but they do not have nearly the resources of such behemoth companies as Exxon who reported a profit of
$45 billion in 2008.

For anybody who is naïve enough to think that corporate influence cannot affect how legislators vote, one only has to look at the battle over health care reform where corporate lobbyists have at times spent money at the rate of
$1.4 million per day! It explains why Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who is heavily funded by the insurance industry, doggedly has fought against any meaningful health care reform despite polls in that state showing that a solid majority of his constituents were in favor of a public option. Just imagine what the health insurance industry can do with their record profits when they can more directly influence elections by advertising for candidates who serve their needs and against those who don’t.

The Republicans are not only taking this in stride but even praising the Supreme Court decision, presumably because their ideology has been to support corporate interests. The same can be said of many of the recent decisions of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority by contentious 5-4 margins.

While the right preaches against the control of big government, they routinely ignore the growing control that big business is exerting over our government and thus our lives. It is hard to say what we can do about passing laws to mitigate the damage since the ruling leaves little wiggle room without becoming unconstitutional. Some have suggested a constitutional amendment to clarify that corporations do not have all of the rights of ordinary people. But getting this passed by two-thirds of both houses in Congress let alone three-fourths of the state legislatures appears to be hopeless considering the widespread Republican support for the Supreme Court decision.

Maybe the sky really isn’t falling. But with already so much corporate control over our democracy now to grow even more, I can’t help but fear for the worst!

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