Ending Corporate Personhood and Money as Speech

The ongoing U.S. crises in jobs, health care, foreclosures, finance, foreign policy, debt, energy and the environment are connected to, if not rooted in, the crisis in democracy. There’s a widening disconnect on issue after issue between what the majority of the public desires and the policies we have.

The growing democracy crisis isn’t at its core about who’s been elected or unelected or what laws have been enacted or not enacted. It’s about the undemocratic nature of what’s considered constitutional – the very ground rules of our political and economic system.

“Our country is broken because the system is fixed,” read a sign last fall at the Occupy site in Washington, DC. This sums up succinctly our democracy crisis.

The overarching set of rules or guideposts of our nation, our constitution and numerous U.S. Supreme Court decisions cast for over a century, have created a profoundly rigged system favoring corporations and the super wealthy at the expense of the vast majority of We the People.

Among the constitutional doctrines anchoring the ever growing power and authority of corporations and the super wealthy are the edicts that “corporations are people” and “money equals speech.” Corporations first acquired corporate rights as “persons” under the 14th Amendment in the 1886 Santa Clara vs. Southern Pacific RR Supreme Court decision while money was protected as free speech under the First Amendment in the 1976 Buckley vs. Valeo decision.

Despite all the valiant education, advocacy and organizing human persons of all races, creeds, genders, incomes and ages to elect specific people and pass specific laws; all the citizen initiatives and referenda to create or repeal statutes; all the strikes and boycotts; all the marches and rallies to stop wars and occupations; and all the social movements to guarantee inalienable rights for women, people of color, workers and young people — the power and authority of corporations and the super wealthy have arguably never been greater in our nation’s history, if not world history, than today. This is due to the widening constitutional shields of corporate personhood and money as speech. Unless and until these doctrines are reversed, it will be extremely difficult, to say the least, to achieve any of the real justice and peace most people aspire to enjoy.

Corporations were never intended to possess inalienable constitutional rights. The Bill of Rights and the rest of the constitution were meant to apply solely to human beings. Corporations were originally creations of government via charters issued for the most part by state legislatures for a limited time period to produce specified goods and/or services. Corporations are not people. They are human-created legal entities separate from the individuals who work or invest in them. They aren’t associations of people or products of private contracts. Only governments make incorporation possible. Since they are human created, humans can, should and once did rigidly define their terms – to ensure that they were and are our servants and not our masters.

The 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court decision expanded never-intended inalienable constitutional rights, specifically free speech rights, to corporations. The decision allows corporations to shift unlimited funds from their treasuries to political “independent” groups supporting or opposing political candidates. “Independent” is supposed to mean the groups are not coordinated by any political candidate or campaign. The decision also applied to unions.

Citizens United gave rise, in part, to “Super PACs,” groups funded by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, which were responsible for a 400% increase in spending in the 2010 mid-term elections from 2006. Most of the spending was directed to attack ads. Such spending was defended as free speech and expanding democracy. Did the 400% rise in political spending in 2010 yield a 400% increase in our democracy?

The 2012 election season has seen an increase in the number and size of Super PACs that are destined to dwarf by year’s end 2010 spending. Incredibly wealthy individuals and corporations fund the largest Super PACs. Labor unions are limited in funding these political entities since their treasuries are much smaller than those of corporations and the super wealthy. Super PAC funding of what has largely turned into hate speech attack ads drowns out the political voices of people or groups without money. It limits what problems are identified, issues discussed, and solutions considered – all of which are tilted to the perspectives of corporations and the super wealthy.

Citizen United expanded the political power of corporations to influence elections and public policies beyond corporate Political Action Committees and direct corporate lobbying that predate the decision by decades.

And since money equals speech, those who have the most money possess the most speech. Political “donations” or “contributions” from the super wealthy are actually more akin to “investments.” Even a cursory examination of laws and regulations in almost every public policy arena reveals the buying, renting, leasing or retaining of public officials by money from the wealthiest 1% have yielded impressive returns.

Labor unions, African-American and Latino groups and other communities of color, women’s organizations and other sectors of the population representing the 99% can’t politically compete in such a rigged system. Corpocracy and plutocracy have replaced whatever amount of democracy we ever possessed.

Widespread public outrage following Citizens United has led to various Congressional initiatives and proposals to amend the constitution. The most comprehensive approach has been proposed by the Move to Amend coalition calling for a constitutional amendment to abolish all inalienable constitutional rights for corporations and an end to money being equated with free speech.

Working on elections and working to change laws are important tasks for those concerned for justice and peace. But they aren’t enough. We must also work to fundamentally amend the U.S. constitution to ensure that the most basic ground rules are not rigged against authentic self-governance.

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