The Corporate Enclosure of Democracy

Today the U.S. Supreme Court gave the go-ahead for corporations to enclose our democracy. The Court ruled that corporations must legally be considered “persons” who are thereby entitled to First Amendment rights. By this tortured logic, long-standing limits on corporate contributions to political campaigns constitute an unconstitutional infringement of free speech.

Funny, if corporations are persons, why don’t they have the same kind of affirmative moral and legal responsibilities that real people have?

The Court’s 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ratifies its previous holding that money is equivalent to speech. But now paid speech (on behalf of market interests) is privileged over people’s speech in electing our political leaders. “We the Corporations….” Corporations may now drown out the speech of real, live human beings for whom the First Amendment was designed. A copy of the decision can be read here.

The perversity of the Court’s warped, soon-to-be notorious ruling can be seen in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s response to the decision: “For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process. With today’s monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups by ruling that the Constitution protects their right to express themselves about political candidates and issues up until Election Day. By previously denying this right, the government was picking winners and losers. Our democracy depends upon free speech, not just for some but for all.”

Yes, “some” have been excluded from full participation in our democracy, but it ain’t been those poor corporations. Yet the Court finds otherwise. And so twenty years of Reagan, Bush and Bush II have yielded the poisonous fruit of this ruling. Can anything be done?

The decision is likely to galvanize Congress to take some modest steps to limit corporate contributions to campaigns, within the terms of the decision. But more sweeping citizen pushback is needed.

Two initiatives have already been launched. People For the American Way has announced a campaign to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would nullify the worst part of the Court’s decision by granting Congress the authority to limit corporate influence in elections. You can sign their petition here.

Another response is called Move to Amend organized by a project of “the Campaign to Legalize Democracy.” Its citizens’ petition declares, “We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, and move to amend our Constitution to:

The petition already has about 4,000 signatures.

The Citizens United case was notable for taking a rather limited set of circumstances and delivering a sweeping constitutional ruling. Such actions are usually called “legislating from the bench” — unless you happen to be a Republican. Only six years ago the Court had declared the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation constitutional, along with other rulings stretching back 100 years. Now, it guts the law.

“Essentially,” Justice Stevens wrote in a strong dissent which he read from the bench, “five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.” He noted that the Court majority overturned acts of Congress dating from 1907 as well as “the overwhelming majority of justices who have served on this court.”

Judicial activism, anyone? Many commentators have noted that Chief Justice Roberts had pledged at his confirmation hearings to act as an “umpire.” So this one is straight down the middle?! Baloney. Robert has tarnished the legitimacy of the Supreme Court by handing down this reckless, highly political ruling that will accelerate corporate enclosures of democracy, make American politics something for the rich alone, and breed further cynicism about government. Robert’s insane response: The Constitution requires more corporate money in political campaigns.

Originally published by David Bollier at Onthecommons.org under a Creative Commons Attribution license.