This past Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5 to 4 decision to do away with any limitations to corporate funding of political campaigns. The decision comes on the heels of the surprise election of conservative candidate Scott Brown in Massachusetts to take over the late Ted Kennedy’s seat. As such, the verdict seems to have been passed in preparation of the upcoming 2010 election, by paving the way for corporate sponsorship of candidates. This decision should deeply scare us all as it establishes new legal interpretations of the 1st amendment. First, it interprets corporations as legal individuals entitled to the more rights in deciding elections than you and me. Second, it deems that money is the same as “speech,” and that therefore funneling money into the campaigns is the same as voicing support for a candidate. Besides flying in the face of legal precedent, the implications of these unfortunate interpretations are potentially quite dire. It makes us consumers first, and citizens second. It defines us solely as consumers and our worth to and in this country estimated by how we oil the great corporate machine. Groups such as the right-leaning Tea Party have based much of their rhetoric on the fear of government takeover of our lives. And yet, the Supreme Court decision single-handedly puts us on the fast track of a complete corporate takeover, where corporations dominate and even dictate who our elected officials will be and how they will vote. By default, our political choices will be made for us. Unlike a government representative, corporations are not vulnerable to votes or petition signs. A corporation is not limited by election terms. A Corporation is not a human! It is granted immunity from culpability in many court cases because of this reason, and as such, should not be granted rights on equal or greater par than us.
A corporation is comprised of countless individuals, many of whom are probably not residents of the states in which they will be subsidizing campaigns. In fact, since most large corporations are multi-nationals, corporations may be calling the shots in who runs for office in your district even though they may not even be from the United States. The most disturbing aspect of this ruling is its affront against freedom of speech. The founding fathers, in creating the first amendment, sought to offer the constituency rights to which we all equally share. All of us have a voice and a means to communicate. We are, for the most part, on fairly equal ground in this respect. We do not all have easily disposable incomes. Most of us don’t: a recent poll revealed that more than half of American individuals make $35,000 a year or less. For a single parent, this toes the poverty line. By claiming that money is tantamount to speech, the Supreme Court has inevitably set up a system in which corporations have the power to hand-pick candidates. We lay citizens cannot compete, as even our individual campaign donations cannot legally exceed $3,600 per candidate. Most of us can’t afford airtime or to buy up bill boards as an alternative to our single votes. Our speech has thus been rendered less prominent, and so less important or influential, than that of the corporations.
Whereas we are restricted to one vote per elected official and in our home towns and states, a corporation is now given a free pass to vote with its dollars anywhere and everywhere it chooses. Corporations have hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal and can drown out all of our voices to elect officials amenable to their interests. And since a corporation is not human, it has no conscience or consciousness, and cannot be tried for crimes against humanity. It conjures up apocalyptic images of the dystopian novels we are assigned to read in high school and college. We are told to read them to better comprehend the capabilities of runaway power. We are taught that this is a real risk. It is-we should heed these works of literature and find the lesson in this.
A corporation, by virtue of its implicit purpose and function, is run with one reigning goal in mind: to maximize profits in the shortest time possible. All other things are secondary, or more likely, peripheral. Such goals run counter to public health and welfare, social equality, and environmental sustainability. I fear the worse from this and will use an example. In the Appalachian region, a majority of coal (which makes up most of our electricity source) is extracted using a nefarious method called Mountain Top Removal (MTR). The name is literal: the tops of mountains are blown off with reams of high powered dynamite. What is left blacks out the sky and slides down the tops and fills the valley with rock and soot. It chokes and coats the nearby towns with dust, kills all the fish and birds, and leaves an ugly mess in its wake. Kids in towns where MTR is conducted have high levels of asthma, bronchitis, and GI upsets. One small child asleep in his bed was killed by a stray boulder during an MTR ‘extraction.’ His parents received a judgement of only a few tens of thousands of dollars for the murder of their son from the multi-million dollar coal company responsible (which did not have the proper permit at the time of the incident). One of the largest silos that stores the coal sludge of MTR debris is kept behind an elementary school, where it threatens rupture and drown the school. Townspeople in MTR towns have much higher cases of diseases like cancer and Crohn’s. I was shocked to learn something like this was being practiced in our country. But the reason it still goes on is clear: coal companies have a lot of money, do a lot of lobbying, and even take judges ruling on the cases against them on yacht trips. How can poor people compete? They can’t. And yet, an effort has been made recently in both state and federal governments to seriously clamp down on this destructive practice. But what chance would small communities stand if all of the electorate was put in place by corporate interests? The slim chance they might have had quickly becomes none. Their dollars are less, so their speech has much less worth to the point of worthlessness.
Another case is our health care system. Health insurance companies maximize profits and eliminate costs by denying people coverage with pre-existing conditions or canceling when the person becomes too much of a “cost-risk” (e.g.: develops cancer). For some reason, many Americans decry implementing more regulation on these companies or a public option in this system because they think some socialization will lead us down some slippery slope to Cold War-era Russia. This is despite the fact that most other developed nations have universal healthcare and have maintained robust democracies (and have higher life expectancies, lower rates of cancer, etc.). It seems strange to me that people are so scared of government-run healthcare, and not corporate-run healthcare, even though the latter can and does take so much more liberties with our lives. To the corporate run healthcare system, we are and continue to be nothing more than consumers who cease to be of worth once they can no longer maximize profits by our continued patronage. I would think even those hard-lined conservatives who don’t want a social option in medicine can still see the atrocity in denying or canceling care for these ends. Under the Supreme Court ruling, these problems will accelerate as health insurance companies will continue to pursue and attain their corporate agenda by these means unchecked. Additionally, other corporations will continue to pollute our air, soil and water, and use carcinogenic chemicals in our products without environmental regulations, thereby exacerbating the rate at which we become sick with a myriad of disorders and diseases for which we then cannot secure (afford) health care to treat.
Think this can’t happen? It already has been in the works for a long time. Check the voting records of your Congress person and then check his/her campaign donors: you can easily see connection. The Supreme Court ruling will take this several steps further. We will have outright corporate sponsorship of representatives. Their positions in our Congress will be bought by the highest bidders and the agenda of that bidder will be what that representative is beholden to, not to his constituents! This ruling puts Congress in the pockets of corporations and keeps them there. It measures the significance of our free speech in dollars, and defines its worth by stocks. And we as regular people are vastly outweighed.
So what is the purpose of this post: is it just a dystopian vision, an apocalyptic rant to bring down your day? Not completely. It probes us first to reflect on the unconstrained power of the Supreme Court. Unlike the executive and judicial branches, these justices are rendered impervious to public opinion or social concern. They are not beholden to voters, or even to the other branches of our government. Once elected, they may and often do sit on the bench for several decades, legislating with ideologies that reflect the era and influences that affected their appointments, ideologies that may now be irrelevant and obsolete. We need to appeal to our government to consider effective checks to the Court, especially when decisions contradict strong legal precedent and undermine individual rights and the overwhelming will and interest of the people. A Constitutional amendment is perhaps in order to restrain corporate financing of elections, as well as the power of Supreme Court justices. A petition for such an amendment, that would clarify that for-profits are not entitled to 1st amendment rights through subsidization of candidates, is available at www.dontgetrolled.org. Another bright light in this dark tunnel is the introduction of the Fair Elections Now Act in Congress, which would waiver limitations on individual citizen donations and offer competitive public financing options as an alternative to corporate backing. Please make sure to contact your House Reps. and Senators and urge them to co-sponsor and vote for the bill when it hits the floor.
In the interim to attaining the passage of legislation or a proper amendment, we need to understand that this is not necessarily a hopeless situation. But it is a David and Goliath case. We can look beyond the dollar signs and ad campaigns the corporations will no doubt bombard us with. The one possible good thing to come out of this is more transparency in campaign financing. This gives us the opportunity to investigate candidates and understand the subliminal messaging of their rhetoric, what it is they are really supporting. We can still vote, and choose the less funded candidates with no or the least corporate representation. We still have the power to reject the beginning of a plutocracy. We can vote with our dollars. Corporations have power because we fund them. Extremely large corporations with huge government influence and shoddy reputations when it comes to human rights protection are good targets for a boycott, as are those that will emerge as the dominant forces in elections. Whereas it is unrealistic to expect we can completely abstain from supporting corporations, as they are now a ubiquitous facet of our society, we can consume much less and consume more conscientiously. By doing this, we refuse to be just consumers, pawns in the chess game of profit playing. This means patronizing our local co-ops and mom & pop shops over big chain retailers, buying second-hand goods over new, sourcing more food from CSA shares, community gardens and farmer’s markets, seeking non-profit over for-profit services when it is a viable option, investing in small-scale renewables and conserving energy at home, driving less and shopping from companies that support democracies at home and abroad (The NGO Green America has a comprehensive online Business Directory of socially and environmentally responsible businesses at http://www.greenamericatoday.org/pubs/greenpages/).
Perhaps this sounds Pollyannaish of me, but we need an appeal. If corporations are in charge of our officials, for now the only control we have over corporations is our financial support of them and we need to scale that back considerably.