On Dec. 12, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court handed the presidential election to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, by denying Vice President Albert Gore a recount of the vote in Florida, which probably would have brought him to the White House.
This was and remains a great shock to many Americans, particularly given the disastrous results of Bush’s eight years in office. But the judicial branch of the U.S. government had even greater shocks in store for supporters of democracy.
On Jan. 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court — weighted toward right wing Bush appointees — in effect handed future elections to the candidate most slavishly devoted to America’s powerful corporate business interests and those who possess extreme wealth.
This historic decision, in the case of Citizens United v. FEC, represents a change in degree, not kind. After all, big business and wealth, through their campaign contributions, lobbying and bribes, already wields disproportionate influence in federal and state elections.
But the new decision removes restraints on corporate funding, amounting to the transformation of an already weakened American democracy into an outright oligarchy, even while maintaining the façade of a two-party system and so-called free elections.
The Supreme Court decided that “the constitutional guarantee of free speech means that corporations can spend unlimited sums to help elect favored candidates or defeat those they oppose.” This kind of funding must be spent independently, in support of, or against, a candidate or issue, but not by the candidate.
This ruling destroyed a ban going back to the 1940s that prevented corporations from directly intervening in elections, although they have had great leeway in utilizing indirect means to support pro-business candidates. A 1990 Court ruling upholding restraints on corporate spending and much of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act — limited as it was — are also now unconstitutional.
In order to grant corporations the legal right to decisively control the U.S. political system, the reactionary Court disinterred and elaborated upon the legal precedent established 125 years ago when incorporated businesses were granted the same rights as people, this time in terms of participation in elections. Thus, if people have free political speech, and can individually make campaign contributions, so can corporations.
Under the Court decision, unions now also have the right to independently spend funds directly supporting or opposing candidates, but the sum of corporate profits available for political investment and the money spent by unions from membership dues is hardly comparable.
Said Justice John Paul Stevens in dissent, “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people…. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
In the words of a New York Times editorial Jan. 22, “With a single, disastrous 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court’s conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.”
President Obama said the ruling had “given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for Big Oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
Commented New York Sen. Chuck Schumer “The Supreme Court has just predicted the winners of the next November election. It won’t be Republicans. It won’t be Democrats. It will be Corporate America.”
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, charged that “this is the most radical and destructive campaign finance decision in the history of the Supreme Court. With a stroke of the pen, five justices wiped out a century of American history devoted to preventing corporate corruption of our democracy.”
There will be a fightback against this latest right wing blow to democracy, from Congress and various liberal, progressive and left organizations. Here are the various methods under discussion.
- Public Financing: The 2009 Fair Elections Now Act (S.752, H.R.1826) is now pending before Congress. Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, says it “would provide congressional candidates with an alternative to corporate-funded campaigns before fundraising for the 2010 election is in full swing. Sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Rep. John Larson ( D-CT), the bill encourages unlimited small-dollar donations from individuals and provide candidates with public funding in exchange for refusing corporate contributions or private contributions in amounts of more than $100.” The proposal has some 126 co-sponsors in the House. Of course, those who want private financing may refuse public financing and opt for the corporate support.
- Restraints on Corporations: Ian Millhiser of the Center for American Progress Action Fund says some in Congress are contemplating requiring additional disclosures by corporations engaged in electioneering, empowering shareholders to demand that their investment not be spent to advance candidates they disapprove of.” He also says Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) are considering “potential fixes including banning political advertising by corporations that hire lobbyists, receive government money, or collect most of their revenue abroad.”
- Constitutional Amendment: Several organizations advocate this course to overturn the new ruling, including Voter Action, Public Citizen, the Center for Corporate Policy, and the American Independent Business Alliance, among others. Says Ralph Nader: “This corporatist, anti-voter decision is so extreme that it should galvanize a grassroots effort to enact a Constitutional Amendment to once and for all end corporate personhood and curtail the corrosive impact of big money on politics.”
- Impeachment: While they have lifetime positions, it is as legally possible to impeach members of the high court as it is a President or Member of Congress. First the House agrees on impeachment, then it is sent to the Senate for conviction. Only one Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase in 1804, has ever been impeached by the House, but he was acquitted by the Senate.
Though the matter is hardly ever mentioned, the Supreme Court is perhaps the most supremely undemocratic of the powerful institutions in our society. The masses of people have no say in selecting the justices who will make some of the most crucial decisions in national history. The nomination is made by whatever president is in the White House when a vacancy happens to occur. If a majority of the Senate approves, as it usually does, the new justice will serve for life, without any oversight by the people. (Likewise hardly mentioned is the fact that the elitist Senate, which in effect “elects” a justice of the Supreme Court, constitutes the second most undemocratic institution in society.)
One way to reduce continuing government erosion of democracy in the U.S., such as the Court’s support for increased corporate control of our society, is to restructure the judicial branch to make it accountable to the people.
All progressive thinking people have lent their support to the measures to weaken the Court’s onerous attack on what’s left of popular democracy. At the same time it must be understood that such attacks come from the executive and legislative branches of government as well, such as the Patriot Act and other more recent dilutions of civil liberties under the Obama Administration.
It is also well to remember that the influence of corporations and the wealthy on the electoral process was grossly excessive before the Supreme Court’s latest outrage, and that if we desire truly effective campaign finance reform the entire process must be democratically revamped in favor of the masses of people, which none of the suggested measures is prepared to do.