Corporate Zombies Are Eating Our Democracy

>The issue of corporate “personhood” has come to the fore again, due to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, handed down on January 21st.

But even some corporations didn’t like the ruling. Dozens of current and former corporate executives from corporations including Delta, Playboy Enterprises, Ben & Jerry’s, Seagram’s, Hasbro, Delta Airlines, Men’s Wearhouse and Crate & Barrel sent a letter to Congress asking it to immediately pass the Fair Elections Now Act, which would publicly finance all congressional campaigns out of a special fund created by a fee levied on TV broadcasters. They say they are tired of getting fundraising calls from lawmakers and now it will get worse.

Of course, these smaller corporations are not the ones who will be doing most of the new spending anyway. It’ll be the mega-corporations, the ones that have been buying legislation through campaign contributions and their swarms of lobbyists on Capitol Hill for some time now. It’s just that now there will be no limits on their so-called “speech.”

The concept of “corporate personhood” grew out of a Supreme Court case decided in 1886, San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co. However, it was just a note by the court reporter that somehow miraculously bestowed this status on corporations. J.C. Bancroft Davis, wrote for the court: “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”

Justice Hugo Black (who served on the Court from 1937-1971) wrote, “In 1886, this Court in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, decided for the first time that the word ‘person’ in the amendment did in some instances include corporations…The history of the amendment proves that the people were told that its purpose was to protect weak and helpless human beings and were not told that it was intended to remove corporations in any fashion from the control of state governments…The language of the amendment itself does not support the theory that it was passed for the benefit of corporations.”

During the Court’s deliberations in this most recent decision, freshly appointed Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested the majority might have it all wrong, and that the court should reconsider the 19th century rulings that first afforded corporations the same rights as flesh-and-blood people. Judges “gave birth to corporations as persons,” she said. “There could be an argument made that that was the court’s error to start with…[imbuing] a creature of state law with human characteristics.”

Clearly, it is a flawed precedent. And instead of compounding the error by wiping out a hundred years of other precedent that at least put some limits on corporate spending in political campaigns, the Court should have corrected the original mistake, as Sotomayor suggested.

Congress is debating a new bill that aims to counter the Court’s decision, but by most accounts – and like everything Congress does these days pertaining to corporate power – it is much too weak.

Surely, the future of democracy itself in the USA is at stake. Until we can take the big money out of politics, our elected officials will continue to serve the entities that provide them with the money to run big, expensive campaigns, instead of the people. Corporate spending should not be protected as free speech, for it is just the opposite – the practice smothers the real free speech of actual citizens, rendering our views seemingly irrelevant.

James Israel
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