The campaign season is upon us. Signs are popping up and ads are appearing in the media. This year you’ll probably experience a lot more campaign ads and general political noise. The reason for this increase is due to the decision the Supreme Court made in January 2010, just two and a half years ago.
This ruling is called Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 vote the justices determined that corporations are individuals under the 14th Amendment. Therefore, under the First Amendment, the right of free speech cannot be limited in the amount of money spent by an “individual” in favor of a candidate.
Most of you have heard of it, but few have actually researched this landmark decision’s history or its implications for the presidential election this November.
Background: Citizens United, a conservative political action committee, funded the movie: “Hilary: The Movie” in 2008. It was highly critical of Hilary Clinton and her run for the presidency. The FEC deemed this movie illegal according to the McCain- Feingold Act, because it “used a corporation’s or union’s funds for the movie which directly advocates for the defeat of a candidate.”
Citizens United sued all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court upheld Citizens United’s right to show the movie based upon First Amendment free speech. Corporations could now spend as much as they pleased on elections as long as their contributions were not coordinated with a candidate.
Implications: That depends on whether you are a liberal or a conservative.
Conservatives are delighted because unleashing corporate coffers and the creation of “Super PACS” means hundreds of millions of dollars are now available for conservative candidates and causes.
It also provides strong competition for President Obama’s use of the Internet to raise millions of dollars from small contributors. Based on recent numbers, Obama is now collecting less money than Mitt Romney for his re-election bid. (Let me clarify that while there are some very large corporate interests that donate to liberal candidates, there just aren’t as many of them.)
Liberals view this Supreme Court decision as another example of rich corporate interests chipping away at our democracy by buying government offices at all levels. While unions are also corporations, they don’t have the resources to compete with big business. This fact is borne out in a quote in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs (P.97): “Although many unions remain fairly well funded, they will never be able to compete with corporate donations. In the hotly contested 2000 election cycle, business-related interests outspent organized labor by a ratio of 14 to one, and the ratio has been similar in more recent contests.”
My take: I find it ironic and hypocritical that conservatives who traditionally argue that the Court must go back to the original intent of the Constitution when deciding constitutionality should ignore that philosophy when using the 14th Amendment to make corporations into individuals, or persons.
The original intent of the 14th Amendment was to protect the rights of former slaves after the Civil War by giving them citizenship. The amendment was supposed to protect them by stating they couldn’t be “deprive[d] … of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person… equal protection of
the laws.” In a strange twist of reasoning the Supreme Court decided that a person could mean a corporation.
How can you or I, as individuals, compete with any corporation whose assets are measured in billions of dollars? Unfortunately, money does buy votes, like it or not. That is a fact of experience and previous election campaign outcomes.
Having now been both a union member and also having been in management, I view unions as necessary evils to balance out the power of corporations. Unfortunately, they can no longer really compete with big business politically.
As you have read in my previous columns, corporations have an enormous effect on our country and its government. I believe, based upon my study, that large, powerful corporations, especially financial ones, hold too much sway over both political parties in Washington D.C., and the nation.
I believe the Citizens United decision was based upon politics – being able to compete with President Obama’s political Internet machine. I also strongly suspect that Justice Roberts took the stand he did regarding Obama’s healthcare law because he wanted to leave his Court’s legacy as one of fairness. Deciding for Obama was another political decision to balance out the damage the Court did with the Citizens
The only real defense against the power of big corporations and political Supreme Court decisions is an informed public who understand the issues involved and who make thoughtful decisions, based upon reason, not upon the hot buttons pushed by campaigns. That’s why I write this column. Individuals – real people, cooperating against a common foe, can defeat the power of big corporations.