One of the most astounding passages in the Supreme Courts mind-boggling decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission the January decision holding that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend as much as they choose from their treasuries to support or oppose candidates for elected office is this:
[T]he Government may commit a constitutional wrong when by law it identifies certain preferred speakers. By taking the right to speak from some and giving it to others, the Government deprives the disadvantaged person or class of the right to use speech to strive to establish worth, standing, and respect for the speakers voice. ... The First Amendment protects speech and speaker, and the ideas that flow from each.
This ode to the First Amendment is inspiring, until you recognize that the disadvantaged class reference is to corporations.
When it comes to speech protections, there are surely many rational ways to distinguish corporations from real, live persons. One is that corporations are not real, live persons! Another is that for-profit corporations exist for the purpose of making money, and that this monomaniacal focus distinguishes them in very important ways from humans, who care not only about making money, but building community, expressing themselves, fairness, equality, justice, protecting future generations, stewarding the planet and much more. Another consequential difference, compounding these other points of difference, is that large and even not-so-large corporations have a lot more money, and can easily mobilize resources on a scale that vastly outdistances anything that real people can do.
Thus the rather obvious conclusion: that corporate money can distort elections and the political process. This is hardly speculative: large corporations dominated the political process even before Citizens United, a fact widely understood. Eighty-five percent of people in the United States believe big business has too much power in Washington.
What may not be quite so obvious is how extraordinary are the resources that corporations can mobilize as against what is now spent on elections.
Consider these juxtapositions:
Total amount spent on federal elections in the 2008 election cycle: $5.285 billion.
Amount spent by Obama campaign in the 2008 election: $730 million.
Average amount raised by incumbent Members of the House of Representatives in the 2008 election: $1.356 million (challengers: $335,101).
Average amount raised by incumbent senators in the 2008 election: $8.741 million (challengers: $1,152,146).
Exxon profits 2007-2008: $85 billion.
Top-selling drug, Lipitor, revenues, 2007-2008: $27 billion.
Goldman Sachs bonus and compensation expense for 2009: $16.2 billion.
Value of Lockheeds defense contracts in 2008: $15 billion.
The amount spent on cigarette advertising and promotion by the five largest cigarette companies in the United States in 2006: $12.49 billion.
Microsoft cash on hand: $33.4 billion.
And these comparisons, from the states:
Amount spent on candidate races in California state elections, 2008: $225 million.
Revenues of the 97th largest corporation in California, Public Storage, 2008: $1.7 billion.
Amount spent on candidate races in Ohio state elections, 2008: $107 million.
Revenues of the 10th largest corporation in Ohio, Progressive Insurance, 2008: $12.8 billion.
Amount spent on candidate races in North Dakota state elections, 2008: $7.3 million.
Revenues of the largest corporation in North Dakota, 2008: $5 billion.
Amount spent on candidate races in Alabama state elections, 2008: $15.5 million.
Revenues of the second largest corporation in Alabama, Vulcan Materials, 2008: $3.6 billion.
Amount spent on candidate races in Nebraska state elections, 2008: $6.4 million.
Revenues of the 10th largest corporation in Nebraska, Public Storage, 2008: $1.9 billion.
Amount spent on candidate races in Rhode Island state elections, 2008: $7.2 million.
Revenues of the third largest corporation in Rhode Island, Hasbro, 2008: $4 billion.
These comparisons illustrate how easy it will be for one company, one industry, or the corporate class overall, to dominate the electoral discourse in the wake of Citizens United. We wont know how this plays out, of course, until after it happens. Will Exxon alone decide to spend, say, $500 million to oppose or support candidates? Perhaps not but the company might, and it certainly could. The mere fact an Exxon could spend that much, or more, will tilt the political process even more in favor of big business. And it is a virtual certainty that targeted corporate spending will escalate sharply in the wake of decision.
Corporations do not establish their worth through political and expressive speech, as the Court suggests, but through a different kind of statement altogether the financial statement. That fact, combined with their unparalleled treasuries, makes the Courts decision in Citizens United a real and present danger to democracy. It must be overturned.
Join the call for a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United and restore the First Amendment and our democracy. Go to: www.dontgetrolled.org.
See citations with this column at (www.commondreams.org/view/2010/02/12-8). Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen (citizen.org). He is co-author with Russell Mokhiber of On the Rampage: Corporate Predators and the Destruction of Democracy [Common Courage Press]. Find past columns at corporatepredators.org.
From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2010
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