The Universal Notebook: The Corporate States of America

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If you ever had any doubt that the Republican Party nationally has become the party of big business, consider the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee now before the U.S. Supreme Court. The political fate of the nation may rest on the decision in that case and the Supreme Court seems determined to use it to hand over total control of the political process to corporate America.

Citizens United is the conservative organization that produced the political attack film “Hillary: The Movie” during the last presidential election. The Federal Election Commission blocked the airing of the documentary, arguing that it was “electioneering communication” designed to defeat Hillary Clinton and, therefore, subject to federal regulation. Citizens United sued and lost. It then appealed the lower court decision to the Supreme Court, which took up the cause with a vengeance.

On the narrow question of whether the Clinton attack film was “core political speech” subject to the First Amendment right of free speech or “electioneering communication” subject to FEC regulation, a case could well be made that the FEC overstepped its authority in banning the film during the campaign season. But the “inglourious basterds” of the Roberts court – Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy – were not content to rule on the narrow question at issue. After oral arguments in March, they asked for a second round of oral arguments in September on the broader question of whether corporate rights of free speech are violated by the century-old ban on corporate contributions to election campaigns.

When I first heard about the case, I wondered whether it would have occurred to the conservative activist judges on the Supreme Court to open that huge can of worms if Citizens United had been a liberal organization such as MoveOn.Org. Probably so. Their agenda is not to rule on a narrow partisan issue of propaganda, but to use the case to overturn a century of precedent and grant free speech to corporations, in the process removing any limitations on corporate financing of political campaigns.

We already have the finest government money can buy, given the huge influence of soft money and political action committees on the outcome of elections and legislation. You would think that citizens across the political spectrum would be able to agree that we need to get corporate and union money out of the American political process.

Only individual citizens of the United States – We, the People – should be allowed to contribute to political candidates. Not corporations, not labor unions, not special interest groups, not foreign nationals. But what we’ve learned as Citizens United v. FEC works its way through the court is that the conservatives on the highest court in the land believe that corporations are people.

Well, Your Honor, corporations are not people. They are artificial legal entities. The founders of this country did not mention corporations nor did they grant them any rights in the Constitution. But corporations got their nose under the tent of “personhood” back in 1886, when a similarly pro-business Supreme Court held, not in its ruling on Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific but in a pre-trial obiter dictum, that corporations are entitled to protection under the 14th Amendment.

The 14th Amendment was passed to establish the citizenship and civil rights of freed slaves following the Civil War. That it has been applied to corporations is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court – until now.

If the Roberts court activists succeed in using Citizens United v. FEC to grant personhood and free speech rights to corporations, we can kiss good-bye not only campaign finance reform, but also what’s left of our democracy. Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and John Paul Stevens are all that stand between us and a corporate takeover. Despite what the lunatic right believes, the greatest threat to democracy is not socialism, but oligarchy.


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beem-edgar-op.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.