Most of us agree that special interests wield too much power. But when we define "special interest," the consensus falls apart.
One definition of a special interest is any group one doesn't like or agree with. Thus, to homophobes the gay movement, especially those pushing for single-sex marriage, is a special interest. Treated objectively, this glib definition renders any group promoting identity politics a special interest. If the group matches one's own identity (say, for example, the Christian Coalition), it's considered a legitimate political organization. But woe to organizations representing other peoples' identities. It's only the groups one doesn't identify with that are denounced as special interests pursuing selfish agendas.
The First Amendment is a remarkable document that guarantees the right of all Americans to agitate, advocate, congregate, organize, or, as drafters more delicately put it, "peacefully to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Real people -- i.e., fresh and blood humans -- alone or in organizations, exercising their rights of free speech and assembly for whatever it is that grieves them, are not special interests. We're just people exercising our rights by "doing democracy." Democracy is not a theoretical abstraction that we're all supposed to venerate. It's a participatory act, a right of empowerment.
What about labor unions? Are they a special interest? To hear the Republican leadership, they certainly are. I can still recall John McCain, sounding like George W. Bush, railing against the big labor bosses of the two teacher unions and blaming them for all the problems of public education.
The right of working people to "do democracy" is no different from the rights of farmers and businesspeople to assemble and petition government. In fact, the rights of labor are severely constricted by the Taft-Hartley Act and subsequent labor legislation. Corporations are not required to include labor in their executive decisions, even when they abandon workers and leave a community. But when workers want to vote on a union, the law allows corporations to impose themselves in the worker deliberations -- and to muster muscle and money to sway their decisions.
Corporations occupy a unique and privileged position in the American legal and economic system. The corporate form of economic enterprise was fairly new in the early days of our country. Existing corporations -- the British East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company -- were seen as foreign entities, chartered by the King of England to exercise quasi-government power over the North American colonies. America's free-thinking and independent farmers, craftsmen, mechanics, and businessmen rightly feared them -- as did England's own free market guru, Adam Smith, who criticized corporations for curtailing "natural liberty."
The US Constitution doesn't recognize any rights of corporations and many state governments placed strong restrictions upon them, insisting that the corporations that they chartered function for the public good. In the mid-1800s, nineteen states amended their constitutions to give their legislators control over corporate conduct. Typical was an amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution that gave legislators the authority to "alter, revoke, or annul any charter of a corporation ... whenever in their opinion it may be injurious to citizens of the community." (For more on this, see the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy www.poclad.org.)
Why should corporations be treated differently than other organizations? Shareholders in a corporation, unlike employees of a corporation, do not necessarily work for that corporation. Their relationship with the corporation is simply fiduciary. It's based only on money, not blood, sweat, brains, skills, talent, or inventiveness. Though shareholders are entitled to vote on some corporate decisions, shareholder democracy is a sham. Democracy is based on the principle of one person-one vote. Corporate voting is based on the principle of one share-one vote. A minority of people holding a majority of shares wield all the power.
The Civil War expanded corporate power and in the corrupt Gilded Age that followed, corporations used their wealth and power to buy judges and legislators. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter described it, corporate robber barons, "seeking land grants, tariffs, bounties, favorable, currency policies, freedom from regulatory legislation and economic reform, supplied campaign funds, fees and bribes, and plied politicians with investment opportunities."
Their greatest success was the US Supreme Court, which in 1886 absurdly defined corporations as "persons" and extended (and perverted) the Fourteenth Amendment (passed to assure freed slaves full rights and protections) to include the property rights of corporations.
Through multi-billion dollar campaign contributions, public relations campaigns, and advertising hoopla, through their monopoly over the media and, increasingly, other sectors of the economy, the largest and most powerful corporations have come to dominate America. Now through the mechanism of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, they are out to dominate the world.
There are arguments to be made for free trade and globalization, but decisions should be made by the public through their governments, not by an economic elite meeting in private boardrooms and unaccountable to the public.
There has always been a movement to curb what Justice Louis Brandeis called the "the Frankenstein monster" of corporate power. A new reform movement is forming and will, next week, be exercising its rights of free speech and petition in the streets of Washington. Its target is unfettered global and multinational corporate power, the real special interests that will stop at nothing to control our planet.
Marty Jezer is a free-lance writer who lives in Brattleboro, Vt. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.