We have come to the precipice of great and genuine political change. And we have a stark dichotomy from which to make the most crucial and consequential decision Americans have had the opportunity to make in more than 70 years.
20 years ago, the late Richard Lee Grossman wrote the essay shared below (Fair Use), which is reproduced in Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy: a Book of History & Strategy (an anthology of essays, sermons and speeches).
Grossman's essay is no less applicable today and indeed is even more so than it was when first published in the Maine Telegram in February 1996.
Talk of campaign finance has long been in the air. President [Bill] Clinton and those rabid freshmen Republican congressmen -- along with many others across the political spectrum -- have been insisting they really and truly want to get Big Money out of elections. Impatient citizens in Maine and California have gathered enough signatures to place ballot measures before the voters next November, measures that attempt to limit campaign contributions.
It is healthy that so many are intent on fixing up this important part of our democratic process. But I believe the debate and the remedies so far have shied away from asking this basic question: Why should we, the sovereign people, permit giant corporations to contribute any money to candidates or referenda?
Corporations, after all, are not flesh and blood. Corporations are legal fictions, not included in "We The People," and not even mentioned in the federal Constitution. Corporations are chartered to conduct business, not to be political organizations. And a primary purpose of today's corporate form is to erect a legal shield between a corporate decision-maker and the people.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Supreme Court has decreed that corporations are artificial persons, with First Amendment -- that is, free speech -- rights. In Buckley v Valeo (1976), a majority of the justices declared corporate cash a form of "free speech." Two years later, in First National Bank v Bellotti, Justice Lewis Powell wrote that corporate spending to influence votes during a referendum campaign "is the type of speech indispensable to decision-making in a democracy, and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation rather than an individual."1
Because corporate fictions are now regarded under law as persons, their executives are free to use their corporations' power -- and their stockholders' money -- to further their own personal and political goals. Several Supreme Court justices in a number of cases have objected to this point of view, and their thoughts are instructive.
For example, Justices Byron White, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, dissenting in the Bellotti case, wrote:
Corporations are artificial entities created by law for the purpose of furthering certain economic ends... It has long been recognized... that the special status of corporations has placed them in a position to control vast amounts of economic power which may... dominate not only the economy but also the very heart of our democracy, the election process... The State need not permit its own creation to consume it.In a dissent from another Supreme Court majority opinion in 1986 expanding corporations' rights to interfere in elections, Pacific Gas & Electric Co v Public Utilities Commission, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote:
To ascribe such artificial entities [corporations] an "intellect" or "mind" for freedom of conscience purposes is to confuse metaphor with reality.Justice Brennan, in Federal Election Commission v Massachusetts Citizens For Life, Inc., wrote in 1986 that:
Direct corporate spending on political activity raises the prospect that resources amassed in the economic marketplace may be used to provide an unfair advantage in the political marketplace... The resources in the treasury of a business corporation... are not an indication of popular support for the corporation's political ideas. The availability of these resources may make a corporation a formidable political presence, even though the power of the corporation may be no reflection of the power of its ideas.Often, logical and rational dissents on the high court have eventually become the law of the land. I, for one, believe that in the not-too-distant future, the American people will insist that corporations must not be granted the rights of people, and that corporations will be barred from contributing any money whatsoever to candidates, to political parties, or on behalf of initiatives and referenda.
But that will only be a step toward claiming our democracy. We will also need to get corporations out of our city councils, our state houses, our Congress and our schools. This is because giant corporations -- often global in reach -- are awash in money and have learned to use this money to flood us with misinformation, to distort basic values, and to shape public debate as their unelected executives see fit.
Between 1980 and 1992, the 500 largest U.S industrial corporations increased their assets, from $1.8 trillion,2 to $2.57 trillion while shedding more than 5 million jobs. The Wall Street Journal proclaimed that the first quarter of 1995 brought "the highest level of corporate profitability in the post-war era and probably since the latter stages of the Bronze Age."3
And the rest of 1995 saw the money continue to roll in -- enough to pay corporate CEOs an average compensation package of more than $3.5 million.
With over $100 billion spend in direct advertising each year (subsidized by the rest of us, given that corporate advertising is tax deductible), our giant corporations can shape an awful lot of minds.
Increasingly, people are realizing that corporate wealth, in concert with corporate control over jobs and the economy, allows a relative handful of corporate executives in a few hundred giant corporations to promote some ideas while undermining others, to solidify certain values while neglecting or even ridiculing others.
With their ubiquitous lobbyists (also paid with tax-deductible money), direct access to elected officials, and ownership of radio, television, newspapers and magazines, corporations influence (and even [increasingly, through organizations like ALEC] write) our local, state and federal laws.
Corporations have been acting like We The People, exercising the political rights of flesh and blood citizens. The Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy has been convening meetings around the country at which people have been "Rethinking the Corporation, Rethinking Democracy." People have begun researching the corporate histories of their states, and asking why our politicians and our courts have granted so many rights and powers to legal fictions. We are finding that when people discover how earlier generations of Americans had forbidden corporations to interfere in our elections and our lawmaking, they are no longer content merely with placing a ceiling on campaign contributions.
It is not enough to get Big Money out of politics. Rather, We the People -- the flesh and blood self-governing people in the tradition of those who came together to form a more perfect union -- must now remove corporations entirely from our elections, our lawmaking, and from public education.
To accomplish this, we must challenge the absurd notion decreed by the United States Supreme Court in 18864 that corporations have the constitutional right to use their wealth, power and propaganda to overwhelm the sovereign people, and prevent the flowering of our democracy.
- This ruling legalized "advertorials." Corporations use them to influence public opinion and public policy and to legitimate corporate "citizenship." (Editor of Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy)
- Statistical Abstract of the United States 1994, Table 870 (page 120 in this pdf).
- Lowenstein, Roger. The '20% Club' No Longer is Exclusive, Wall Street Journal May 4, 1995
- Santa Clara v Southern Pacific Railroad
Practically at the same time I was working on this post, noted author Marianne Williamson published an essay titled Corporate Totalitarianism, or Not on Huffington Post. Excerpts:
Corporate totalitarianism means total control by corporate interests. If they want a war, they get a war. If they want GMOs, they get GMOs. If they want fracking, they get fracking. If they want big banks to control our monetary policy, big banks control our monetary policy. If they want a tax break, they get a tax break. If they want the TPP, they get the TPP. If they want to deregulate to the point of complete irresponsibility to our children and to the earth, they deregulate as much as they care to. And if they see a way to profit from the vulnerability of the old, the disadvantaged, the poor, the young, or the sick, then they are given the right to do so.
Through their control of politicians, political parties and corporate media, they do everything necessary to make sure that political candidates who resist them get nowhere near the levers of power. It is not by accident that they have created Trump, protected Clinton, and sidelined Sanders.
To those who say there is no political revolution, I say that if it's true then that's very sad -- because there should be. What's happening in the United States today is a corporate coup of the U.S. government, and anyone who isn't grieving that must not be looking. [...]
No person or party leadership whose politics seek to compromise with the new totalitarianism will do anything more than soften the edges of this controlling force, improve its PR, and take some of the extreme sting out of the pain it causes. Still, in that case, the pain will only get worse. And ultimately one of the greatest experiments in human possibility will have slipped through our fingers -- for the simple reason than that we allowed it to. Because they put us to sleep. Because they numbed our outrage. Because they sedated our conscience.
And thus they will have won. Or not. This is the generation that gets to decide.
The greatest sadness for me is in seeing otherwise wonderful political activists put to sleep mentally and pushing back against the only opportunity for wrenching America away from this corporate totalitarianism. Having a woman president will be no consolation to those whose sons and daughters are sacrificed to the next war she (or more likely Donald Drumpf) would start.
We will learn tomorrow how Bernie plans to campaign in the rest of the states. The Political Revolt must continue.