Today is the fourth anniversary of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court decision which upended the traditional notion of democracy—namely, that rights accrue to living, breathing human beings, with needs, aspirations, and desires.
Former Labor Secretary and current UC Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich described the decision like this: “Four years ago today, on January 21, 2010, the five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court—either oblivious to the concentration of income and wealth at the top of America or conspiring with it—declared that the First Amendment protects corporations because corporations are ‘people’, and that the government therefore may not keep corporations from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. And as ‘Citizens United’ has been interpreted by lower courts, it has opened the floodgates of money from billionaires and multimillionaires as well”.
How else could we interpret the suggestion that Corporations are people and that Money is free speech except as an assault on the relationship between people and their institutions? If political power and political influence is to be accorded based on the ability to purchase that power and influence, those of us in the great majority who do not have the resources to mount million- and billion-dollar campaigns to make ourselves heard are being written out of politics.
The Republican Party and those on the right of the Democratic Party like to talk about the inherent goodness of capitalism and the beauty of the “free” market. But of course no market is really “free”, because if a “free market” means one without constraints imposed by the state for the public good, it is simply one in which the richer and more influential you are, the more wealth and power will accrue to you.
All markets are manipulated, but they can be manipulated differently, to different political ends, and by different interests. Some are manipulated in away to ensure that benefits flow relatively evenly across society, and that no one accumulates unseemly wealth so long as there are other people struggling for a livelihood.
And others are manipulated to ensure that money flows upwards and is readily translated into political power, buying influence for those with money so that they can ensure that the representatives they have purchased create laws which bring them more wealth. And because such a manipulation of the economy is so clearly unfair and unjust, these interests will also seek to weaken the rights of those against whom the economy is rigged.
They will do so by curtailing the ability of working people to set the terms of their labour and demand compensation that allows them to live decently. They will do so by launching attacks on any political candidate or group which talks about the need for equality and justice. And they will do so by sponsoring “think tanks” to generate faux “studies”, propaganda which makes a virtue of inequality and seeks to divide working people against each other.
Citizens United—the granting of rights to corporations and the dilution of the rights of human beings—is one of the more egregious examples of efforts to rig our political system, and through that system, rig our economy.
There is a clear economic argument to be made about funneling wealth to people who—because they are so spectacularly wealthy—do not use that wealth in a manner which stimulates the economy and creates jobs.
But there is also an urgent moral argument to be made against the mangling of citizenship and the growth of corporate power at the expense of our democracy. Amongst elected representatives in the United States, this moral argument has been made most powerfully and most consistently by Massachusetts Senator and ardent progressive Elizabeth Warren. In 2012 it was left to Warren to provide the most impassioned answer to Mitt Romney’s unabashed claim that “Corporations are people, my friend!”
Warren delivered a thundering response at the Democratic National Convention which was as much a rebuke to the quiescent in her party as it was to the fundamentalists in the GOP:
“Republicans”, Warren declared, “say they don’t believe in government. Sure they do. They believe in government to help themselves and their powerful friends. After all, Mitt Romney’s the guy who said, ‘Corporations are people’. No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they have jobs. They get sick, they cry, they dance, they live, they love, and they die. And that matters”.
In the Senate Warren has been a strong advocate for the introduction of accountability to the governments interactions with the corporate world, for the restoration of democratic rights to people, and for the enactment of legislation designed to restore economic well-being to people who have been badly hurt by the manipulation of our economy and society.
I hope that the legislation Warren has so far proposed, and which ought to receive the support of all those representatives invested in the defence of our democracy—the Truth in Settlements Act, the Equal Employment for All Act, the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act, and the Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act— represent just the beginning of her efforts to reform the financial system, even the playing field for the working class, and create an economy which is just and moral and benefits real people rather than the corporate titans who are currently the recipients of so much largesse from our broken system of government.