Thursday, January 28th, 2010

“If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”
The words are those of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in last week’s landmark Supreme Court decision marking some sort of culmination in the long corporate trek to personhood. It’s the word “simply” that gets to me: Exxon-Pinocchio is a real boy now, and has his opinions, and the government has no right to stop him from “simply engaging in political speech.”
What a cheap cover story; it’s up there with “bringing democracy to Iraq” in its tawdry manipulation of iconic national values to justify a raw power grab. The 5-4 decision in the long-awaited Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case overturns restrictions on corporate spending to influence election results, giving entities with millions (in some cases, billions) of dollars at their disposal unlimited license to electioneer for the candidate with the friendliest attitude toward their interests.
The tendency of money and power is to concentrate, of course. The big trick, from a human perspective, is to make sure our core values remain pre-eminent, that they are served by the ways in which we concentrate power. Democracy is the great mechanism for doing so, the hope of the world, or so we are told, but the wakeup message in this nakedly cynical ruling by the Roberts Court, with its slim (but sufficient) right-wing majority, is that the concept of democracy is mortally wounded.
As former Sen. Bob Kerrey wrote recently on Huffington Post: “Instead of doing the nation’s business, elected officials are spending a third of their time or more dialing for special interest dollars in never-ending campaigns for re-election.
“Industry lobbyists,” he goes on, “are helping to write the very bills in Congress that affect their bottom line, placing private profit ahead of the public good. Billions of taxpayer dollars are going to benefit big contributors through earmarks, subsidies, and special regulations.”
And as Chris Hedges explains on TruthDig: “Corporations have 35,000 lobbyists in Washington and thousands more in state capitals that dole out corporate money to shape and write legislation.”
The interests of Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Coal, agribusiness, the financial sector, the insurance sector and, of course, the military-industrial complex, have infinitely more clout in government than the collective popular will and the voices calling for eco-sanity, universal health care and an end to war. Note: This is already the case.
Corporate entities have thoroughly gamed the system, leaving us with little more than a textbook-democracy façade. What the latest Supreme Court decision does is legitimize all this, shoving the corruption in our faces by declaring the absurd: Corporations are people too! They have a right to weigh in on the candidates just like the rest of us — to get their billion-dollar opinions out to the public throughout the election campaign.
This is an “activist” judicial decision, that is to say, a decision that serves a prior agenda, with any principles cited (e.g., the sanctity of free speech) sheer window dressing in service to a larger, and covert, cause.
As a New York Times story points out, the case itself — involving a conservative, not-for-profit corporation called Citizens United, which was restricted in its ability to distribute an attack film about Hillary Clinton, “Hillary: The Movie,” during the 2008 presidential primary elections — could have been decided on narrow grounds. The court chose instead to expand the scope of the case, making it into a challenge of existing laws that regulate corporate election spending, most notably the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a.k.a. McCain-Feingold, which prohibits corporate electioneering within 60 days of an election. This is what we’ve lost.
The good news is that the decision has generated a huge outpouring of anger around the country. Within a day of the ruling, the website had garnered some 40,000 signatures (it’s now close to 50,000) in support of a constitutional amendment to establish that money is not speech and only human beings have constitutional rights. The amendment would also guarantee our right to vote and participate in elections, and to have our votes count.
A number of bills and legislative actions are also in the works, attempting to circumvent the Supremes. The proposals range from patch jobs to cries for profound change, both of which are necessary in the process of resuscitating democracy.
No matter what, though, the Roberts Court has hastened the propagandizing of the national discourse, mostly through the medium of television, as corporate interests amp up their thought-control machines in the name of free speech. I see little hope for a gullible nation that allows the tube to hemorrhage urgent inanities directly into its consciousness for 18 hours a day. This gullibility is the source of corporate power. Democracy can only thrive where people think for themselves.