The Citizens United campaign finance decision by Chief Justice John Roberts and a Supreme Court majority of conservative judicial activists is a dramatic assault on American democracy, overturning more than a century of precedent in order to give corporations the ultimate authority over elections and governing. This decision tips the balance against active citizenship and the rule of law by making it possible for the nation’s most powerful economic interests to manipulate not just individual politicians and electoral contests but political discourse itself. As such, it demands a vigorous response, uniting progressive activists and good-government reformers of every stripe along with those conservatives who are also troubled by the decision. We must now fight for legislative and constitutional remedies to this threat to the American experiment.
By awarding to corporations the rights of citizens when it comes to electioneering, the Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission goes against the intent and understanding of founders like Chief Justice John Marshall, who referred to the corporation as an "artificial being, invisible, intangible"; and Thomas Jefferson, who warned almost two centuries ago that America must "crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country." Dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke as a strict constructionist when she declared during oral hearings on the case that "a corporation, after all, is not endowed by its creator with inalienable rights." Unfortunately, the majority dismissed Ginsburg’s wise counsel and issued what Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the Constitution Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, correctly characterized as a "lawless" decision. President Obama was right on point when he said, "I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest. The last thing we need to do is hand more influence to the lobbyists in Washington, or more power to the special interests to tip the outcome of elections."
The High Court’s rejection of the ban on direct political spending by businesses, industry associations and their surrogates, and of limits on the amount of money they may spend on campaigning, sets up a dystopia in which our elections–including this year’s critical Congressional and state contests–could become little more than Super Bowl games, with corporations spending whatever it takes to sell their products, er, candidates.
Already the Chamber of Commerce is promising to unleash the "largest, most aggressive" election-season spending spree in the organization’s history. Chamber officials promise to "highlight lawmakers and candidates" who toe the corporate line and "hold accountable those who don’t." The savvier corporate players will not be so bold in their pronouncements–they know that the mere threat of a corporate onslaught for or against a candidate or party is enough to win legislative favor, in effect blunting the prospects for sound regulation, consumer protection and fair tax policies–let alone significant healthcare, housing, education or workplace reform.
While it is true that labor unions will also be freed to spend for their preferred contenders, it is absurd to suggest that unions–with combined assets barely equal to the combined annual compensation packages of any two of the largest investment banks–could come anywhere near the massed might of corporate capital. While it is true that some corporations have objected to the ruling because they think it will increase pressure on them to shell out campaign donations–a practice they rightly abhor as little more than a protection racket–most firms will consider political donations to be an acceptable price of doing business. And there is no combination of progressive forces that will be sufficient to counter bad private spending with good. "The real bad news is for people who want healthcare legislation, people who want legislation that will protect our environment, people who want…to make sure that banks are their friends, not their enemies," says Public Campaign’s Nick Nyhart, who argues that for progressives reform is now "a prerequisite."