Friday, January 22, 2010

Supreme Court's Blow to Democracy

As if money and corporate influence don't already control too much of government policy, the Supreme Court, in a radical and astonishing display of judicial activism, has decided that corporations now have the rights of individuals.

New York Times Editorial:

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.

Congress must act immediately to limit the damage of this radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy.

As a result of Thursday’s ruling, corporations have been unleashed from the longstanding ban against their spending directly on political campaigns and will be free to spend as much money as they want to elect and defeat candidates. If a member of Congress tries to stand up to a wealthy special interest, its lobbyists can credibly threaten: We’ll spend whatever it takes to defeat you.


The majority is deeply wrong on the law. Most wrongheaded of all is its insistence that corporations are just like people and entitled to the same First Amendment rights. It is an odd claim since companies are creations of the state that exist to make money. They are given special privileges, including different tax rates, to do just that. It was a fundamental misreading of the Constitution to say that these artificial legal constructs have the same right to spend money on politics as ordinary Americans have to speak out in support of a candidate.


In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens warned that the ruling not only threatens democracy but “will, I fear, do damage to this institution.” History is, indeed, likely to look harshly not only on the decision but the court that delivered it. The Citizens United ruling is likely to be viewed as a shameful bookend to Bush v. Gore. With one 5-to-4 decision, the court’s conservative majority stopped valid votes from being counted to ensure the election of a conservative president. Now a similar conservative majority has distorted the political system to ensure that Republican candidates will be at an enormous advantage in future elections.

Full text here.

As I noted in last week's Smile Politely column, the balance of power in this country is not just the three branches of government. The main struggle for power is between industry and government. The Supreme Court has now decided that industry can legally buy government policy.  It's a great victory for profit in this country, but a huge blow to the common good.


Fingtree said...

Perhaps the (5) Supreme Court votes in favor of this decision are getting kick backs or clandestine bribes from corporate America? Maybe nepatism is in there somewhere for their friends or family members to benefit from? Their political friends have much to gain for the betterment of the party they represent? No, most likely not

brownie said...

Extending free speech rights to corporations may be dangerous, but no more dangerous than extending habeus corpus rights to foreign terrorists.

Robert Sievers said...

After all, Dan could contribute to a political fund, and I could contribute to a political fund, but if we join together in a common 501(c) non profit group, why should we be able to contribute to a political cause anymore?

Perhaps we should let the government decide which coorperations are acceptable, and which are harmful, and let only the state approved ones speak freely.

Dan S said...

Your decision to contribute to a 501(c) in no way restricts your ability to contribute to a political cause.

This is pretty easy Bob. No organization should be allowed to influence elections for their own financial gain. That's called corruption. It's not even a left/right issue, unless you consider corruption to be a core Republican value.

And your continued demonization and misrepresentation of government is pretty tiresome. Let's reframe:

"Perhaps we should let the government decide which accounting standards are acceptable, which are harmful, and only let state approved accounting standards be lawful."

Yes, that's what government is supposed to do -- outlaw actions that clearly violate the public good. It can't do this very well when corruption is legalized.

PG said...

RAINN WILSON just tweeted this: "This just in! Monsanto is getting married to Halliburton & the loving spouses are contributing 1.7 Billion to Newt Gingrich's pres campaign!"

I'm staying out of the endless Mammon arguments. However, I did enjoy yesterday's story in the NYTimes, CHILLED BY CHOICE, about people around the country, from the Lower East Side to Telluride Colorado, who have chosen to live without heating their homes. Who needs oil?

Robert Sievers said...


Your feelings toward my portrayal of government is exactly how I feel about your portrayal of Christians who don't believe like you do.

But let's be serious about corruption. I am not happy about what the unions will be doing next election, but I have to respect their right to speech even though I don't agree with what they will be saying.

Is the problem really that people (and now) corporations can give money, or is the issue perhaps we live in a society that no longer values ethics, because people such as you have relativized everything to the point normal people can't figure out what is right or wrong anymore? It’s means to an end right? Who cares what rights we infringe upon as long as we get the right result, right?

Dan S said...

You are changing the subject, ironically so, because you seem unable to recognize simple corruption as wrong, as long as the means (corruption) helps your party win elections (the end)

What this ruling does is move us further away from one person = one vote and closer towards one dollar = one vote and an eventual kleptocracy. If you don't see that as a problem, then there is not much use arguing about it.

Robert Sievers said...

I definitely see it as a problem. As I said, unions are going to use dues of members to push candidates they, and not their constituents, want.

My point is that we need to head off corruption at the other end. If you, however, feel we should censor the next Michael Moore movie because it was made by "a corporation", then we agree. There isn't much use arguing about it.

Fingtree said...

There isn't much use in arguing with normal people. Who are the normal people? Those union folk surely aren't normal, they have been labeled to lean Democratic, hence why Robert is automatically opposed to them. I am a member of the IBEW. It is a complete mixed bag of people, from top to bottom.
Robert using the unions as part of this argument is as predictable as the sun rise tomorrow.

Samuel said...

Why don't we head off corruption on both ends?
That is, as participants in civil society, its good to advocate for a political and social system that plays by clear rules that attempt to provide equality to each person. But its also good to try and practice what we preach, offering support for the least of these in our lives and subsuming our personal goals for the needs of others, not to mention teaching our communities that structure is at least as important as content, and that if we don't fight fair, we deserve to lose.

Next, Robert, I don't think Dan is a completely moral relativist-(of course, Dan can speak to this on his own) but he seems to have a well developed set of ethics that are consistent over time, and are fairly simple-be nice to those in need, don't be a jerk, don't trust the powerful and wealthy, respect difference. Normal people can follow these directions.

Dan advocates for universal health care, a reduction in carbon emissions, gay marriage, and other liberal values for ethical reasons-I mean, these are things that he has no reason to care about, other than a deep seated moral perspective. Otherwise he could say 'I've got mine' and go on with his life.

Finally, on corruption, from my perspective the fundamental challenge is that the government gives money to specific people and organizations, and then those groups give a small fraction of that money back to the individuals in government, who then repeat the cycle. This can be broken in three ways:
1) saying that no corporation can give money for any political cause (Dan's solution)
2) saying that government can't give money to corporations (Robert's solution).
3) oversight of the government by some other organization that can't be bribed (e.g., the public).
Unfortunately, neither party is interested in solutions 1 and 2, and the public doesn't care, and those who do care are pretty evenly divided between right and left.

PG said...

I wonder if these people vote as Republicans or Democrats.

Robert Sievers said...

I would assume they are Republicans. If they were democrats, they would have worked to tax somebody more wealthy then themselves for donatations.

Fingtree said...

Stereotypes and that typical sub-text of hateful, selfish thinking is all that indolent Republicans have. The bible seems to be their security blanket to hide behind when it is needed.

Fingtree said...

This Supreme Court decision is yet another that has ruined this country politically and economically. The worst Supreme court decision in American history was the December 12th, 2000 debacle of appointing Bush/Cheney to the presidency. What followed has been the worst terror attacks on our soil and the worst legislation passed, highest debt, on and on. The money that has been spent in just the last decade on politcal campaigns could have been applied to this economic crisis four times over. It is so sad that it will now only get worse, especially in this crucial time of volitility.

Robert Sievers said...

Washington, D.C.--Just days after the Supreme Court held that corporations, nonprofit corporations, and unions could not be denied their free speech rights to engage in political advocacy during federal elections, Democrats responded angrily to the notion that "groups of individuals" as well as individuals have free speech rights.

In response to the Supreme Court's decision, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) introduced a constitutional amendment that would strike from the nation's founding charter the term "persons" and other plural references to people.

"While it's perfectly appropriate for Members of Congress like me to be able to collect corporate contributions and use the money to air political ads in favor of our positions," said Grayson, "it's a perversion of the political process to allow individuals to combine their own financial resources and do the same."

-From optoons

Dan S said...

Democrats have not responded angrily to the notion that individuals have free speech rights.

Corporations are not groups of individuals combining their financial resources.

It seems that the only way you can justify this is to simply make stuff up.

Robert Sievers said...

Actually, for a microcosm of how those on the left have responded to free speech issues, you can look at the latest memos filed under the freedom of information act, at how the university attempted to squelch the free speech of students for the chief.

And yes, corporations can be individuals banded together. If pg and I created a non-for-profit group to appeal for tort reform, we would be considered a "corporation", and could therefore not be able to advertise. Technically, Hollywood studios are corporations, and therefore according to your view, any movie with political content should not be shown on television.

Sorry, but I believe in free speech. As offensive as much of your satire is to me, I firmly believe you should have the right to proclaim it as loudly and to as many people as you want. Just because you might incorporate to keep blog finances separate from your and Jill’s grocery budget would not change my opinion on that.

PG said...

Please leave me out of this.

PG said...

Well, on second thought, I just have to say that -- no matter who is right on what constitutes a person or a corporation or free speech rights -- the entire argument revolves around Money, as always with the right wing. It has nothing to do with helping people, or compassion, or doing the will of God. It's about clutching onto power and resisting taxes and accumulating riches that rust and corrupt.

PG said...

The ultimate fate of the Right, who put their faith in Mammon:

Dan S said...

Bob, this isn't about the right to free speech so much as the right of the rich and powerful to influence government policy without constraint. In bringing up irrelevant issues, like the chief or that some corporations are non-profit, you are just changing the subject.

We are quickly becoming a one dollar = one vote "democracy," which is not constitutional free speech.

Again, if you don't see a problem with that, there is no use arguing about it.

Robert Sievers said...


I know that one of our core disagreement stems from whom we feel currently has more power. You feel it's corporations, and I feel it's the government. It occurs to me that the rise of government intrusion actually may be having the reverse effect of what you want, and correspondingly what alarms me so much. The more the government tries to infringe on society, the more options the rich and powerful have to game the system.

For example, if we had a flat tax, lobbyists would disappear, because they couldn't bribe lawmakers into giving tax breaks. It's easy for some corporation to hire me for $2M/year and make it my job to personally buy $1.9M in ads. It's always possible to game the system. The fact that you are scared of corporations running amuck, just as I am of the unions, is perhaps more of an indictment of our political system as a whole.

PG said...

So, Robert, tell me again. What is it you hope to achieve in the position you take? Social justice? And what is it you fear from those you oppose?

Am I wrong to conclude it is invariably related to the money you feel you are entitled to claim as your own?

I should just stay out of this.

Dan S said...

Bob, if you are concerned that the "more the government tries to infringe on society, the more options the rich and powerful have to game the system", how can you possibly support a decision that allows the rich and powerful to very easily game the system?

I think you are looking at this in political terms, not structural terms. "This will help Republicans in the short run, therefore it is good." But long term, this is incredibly corrosive and will lead to increased concentration of wealth and power.

Robert Sievers said...

pg, I am pretty sure I bring in significantly less money per month than anyone else who regularly leads this blog, so this isn't about money.

Actually, Dan, I am not sure this helps either party more than the other. Unions get a lot of money, and not all corporations will throw 100% behind republicans.

I really feel this is a slippery slope of taking away freedom of speech. Have you considered that the without this ruling, the government could decide your church can't print fliers for events that are deemed "in favor" of a political event or candidate, because your church is not a person? You laugh, but I think freedom of speech is a really big deal, and should be guarded at all costs. We can disagree about that, because after all, we each have the right to say what we think, for now.

Dan S said...

I don't understand the slippery-slope argument, since this ruling is what is new. What existing free-speech rights don't exist that you are worried about? Churches can endorse candidates all they want as long as they give up their tax-exempt status, since political advocacy is not tax-exempt.

And simple math should convince you that unions are no competition for corporations. I would bet Exxon made more in profit in 2008(45 billion) than probably all of the dues of all unions combined. And union dues are mostly for union members -- very little of it goes to political advocacy.

Corporations may or may not spread the wealth equally (they aren't right now - Republicans get the lion's share and that's not likely to change). But as a person who usually votes Democratic, I don't want it to be bought and beholden by corporations. It's bad for the country and the common good.

Your "free speech" is not free unless everyone has the same opportunity to "speak." In the media age, that means equalizing access to media by not allowing the wealthiest to bombard the media message. Your version of free speech is one dollar=one vote, which is neither free speech nor democracy.

PG said...

Robert, I literally spent hours thinking about your response as I drove my delivery route this morning. Of all the issues that have been batted back and forth, all the positions and posturing, all my own knee-jerk sarcasm and stupidity, and I find myself nonplussed and dumbfounded. My first inclination was to believe you are being disingenuous or are merely, like so many, deluded (out of the calculated and manipulated fear sold by politicians and religions). But I do believe you truly believe what you believe, and find this so disheartening I can only throw my hands in the air. With all the ills in the world, from war lies to the unmet needs of the wretched because of greed of the privileged, I just don't know how to accept that you are pinning your positions upon a threat to free speech. Are you saying we should tax the churches? OK, then. That's a great idea. I'm for it.

Robert Sievers said...

Ok, let's try this the other way. One of the groups I like to support is "Rails to Trails". They help turn outdated railroad right of ways into bikepaths.

Explain to me why they should not be allowed to put an ad out telling me which candidates in my area support their agenda.

PG said...

I don't know, Robert. I worked as a copywriter for several ad agencies over the years. I would have a hard time being convinced that advertising of any kind is truthful enough to qualify as free speech.

But I do hope you watched Obama speak to the House Republicans just minutes ago. If you missed it, track it down and watch carefully.

It shows the difference between being a true advocate for important issues for the betterment of all people and the bickering of partisan politicians.

PG said...

Try this on:

Dan S said...

Bob, we are not talking about the corruption that would happen if "Rails to Trails" were to produce an ad to endorse a candidate. We are talking about the corruption of Exxon buying up all the airtime 2 months prior to an election to spam the media and install candidates that will enact policies favorable to them. They could remove taxes for oil and add taxes for every other kind of energy. They could remove pollution laws and make it cheaper for them to produce oil, increasing their profit.

You obviously don't see a problem with that. It's "free speech" to you.

Robert Sievers said...

Oh, I thought the discussion was about corperations buying ads to support candidates.

I didn't know the conversation has now moved to which groups should be able to, and which groups should not.

By all means, state your criteria.

Dan S said...

Bob, you are exasperating.

No corporations should be allowed to buy ads for candidates, because some corporations can control elections that way. That some corporations can't control elections via ads is not sufficient reason to allow others to do so.

PG said...

And where judges are elected, the impact for corporate influence will be devastating.

Robert Sievers said...


I think I see what you are saying. Your position is that if some might misuse a power or right, that power or right should be banned for everyone?

Am I correct?

PG said...

Robert, You are not being sincere. You are being sarcastic and I don't understand why or what you are trying to protect or defend. To backtrack to your comment about Michael Moore not being allowed to make movies... well, that has no bearing on this decision. Moore made movies within the marketplace and people paid to watch them. Rightists like yourself have tried to copy him (or mock him) with their own movies, but they don't have the skill or the ideas to get anybody interested enough to buy tickets. Moore didn't pay to have his movies shown on TV. Advertising that is paid for can have all kinds of impact. Personally, I don't trust advertising any further than it can be thrown. And if your Rails to Trails buddies wanted to support a political candidate, why couldn't they do so on their own? I don't claim to understand this decision fully, but it seems to be granting even more power to the already wealthy and powerful and giving the status of individual personhood to corporations. I think there is something about that in Revelations, if I'm not mistaken, about the Antichrist. I must go now and make potato soup. There are four cardinals sitting just outside my window. Ciao...

Dan S said...

It depends on the power Bob. We are allowed to own knives. We are not allowed to own nuclear weapons. Because some people would not abuse nuclear weapons is not a good reasont to allow everyone to own nuclear weapons.

The power for corporations to spend unlimited money in support of a candidate is more like a nuclear weapon than a knife.