The following is at least as much opinion as fact, but if I say something that isn’t factual, please tell me.
Our American version of democracy has never been pure or particularly representative. From women’s suffrage to civil rights to lobbyist influence to rumors that can spread around the world before truth gets up off the couch, something has always gotten in between a citizen’s wishes and her elected leaders.
I had thought things were moving in a positive direction with the proliferation of the Internet. It’s never been easier to encounter dissenting opinions or do your own research. I’ve been having some healthy (and some insipid) debates through Facebook for the last couple of years, the kind that would’ve otherwise happened only with friends or co-workers. I like having those. It’s incredibly important to be available to hear other points of view. Not to mention the continued release of government data available for analysis by anyone. Together, we can help each other get to the truth.
A giant step backward
Yesterday, our Supreme Court ruled that since money is considered a kind of free speech, and because corporations are considered a kind of people, (I’m not sure I agree with either of those assumptions), then corporations are free to spend as much as they want to promote or condemn a particular political candidate.
The problem, from my point of view, is that corporations only ever have one priority: increase profits. And especially in America, they want to increase profits in as short a time-frame as possible. We don’t take a long view in this country, as they tend to do in Europe and Asia. That’s why, for example, the electric car took an extra few decades to go into production, and why we’re still dumping toxic chemicals into otherwise useful water. We avoid doing the right thing, because that would be expensive, and shareholders would not be pleased.
You and I, as individuals, are limited to donating $2,400 to a federal candidate. Corporations can now spend as much as they want. Not in donations, exactly, but in other creative ways.
Two days ago, the Shell Corporation would’ve been unable to produce and distribute a feature-length movie explaining that oil is the obvious and only logical way to fuel your car, and therefore you should vote for Sarah Palin.
Clearly, I made up that example. But I feel confident that if Shell could spend a billion dollars to elect a candidate that would help them realize $4 billion in profit, they would.
Is this a partisan issue?
(For the record: I’m registered Independent, and always have been. I tend to vote Democratic, because Republicans push me away with their talk about abortion, civil rights, lower taxes in the face of enormous deficits, and the general idea that individuals fending for themselves is more American than people coming together to help each other out.)
The Supreme Court didn’t have to make such a large ruling. They specifically asked to review the long-standing precedent while in the middle of a much smaller case. Conservative opinion holds a majority in the Supreme Court at the moment.
In 2008, Barack Obama was able to raise more than John McCain by switching from federally-supplied election funds to private sources. The Obama campaign raised a previously-unheard-of amount through “micro-donations”, such as the $160 I donated over the course of three or four months.
But corporations, because they are almost always motivated only by profit, will want Republicans to win more than they want Democrats to win, because Republicans tend to vote to protect profits more than anything else. And corporations will always have more to spend on candidates than individuals will.
I acknowledge that some corporations, while incapable of having their own ethics, are run by ethically-minded people. Not all of them want to see America continue its dependence on foreign oil, High Fructose Corn Syrup, ammonia-laced beef and unnecessary medical tests.
But really all it comes down to is who is willing to spend the most money in an election. It could be Starbucks, it could be Walmart, it could be Sichuan Tengzhong, that previously-obscure Chinese business that recently bought the Hummer brand.
Wait, foreign-owned corporations?
Yes. There’s no difference, according to the law. Chinese, Saudi, German, Australian, it doesn’t matter. Any corporation operating in the U.S. is equally unrestricted.
What about unions?
Yes, this recent ruling also allows unions and other advocacy groups to spend as much as they want in a given election. But who has more to spend, the American Federation of Teachers, or Microsoft? There’s no contest between unions and corporations.
Is there a silver lining?
One possible silver lining to what the SCOTUS did yesterday is that the already-existing problem of “corporate personhood” will be apparent to more people. I’ve never much liked that precedent. It’s illogical to equate a business with a person. A business is a collection of contracts and bank accounts. It doesn’t have a brain with which to generate opinions, so I don’t think free speech applies to it.
Additionally, before the millions start flowing, the Federal Election Commission will have to come up with updated regulations and enforcement processes. I don’t really know what to expect here, though.
What can be done?
To begin with, I’m throwing my lot in with a group who is pursuing a Constitutional Amendment to clarify that corporations are not people. Frankly, I’m worried for my country that it’s come to that: we have to write down that a business and a person are different things. But in general, once the Supreme Court has spoken, changing the Constitution is the last thing you can try.
Here’s a pretty good video explaining what happened, what it means, and what can be done:
Landmark Supreme Court ruling allows corporate political cash, Reuters, 21 Jan. 2010
Updated June 23, 2016 and originally published January 22, 2010.