Is Democracy Dead In America?

In response to yesterday’s article, What Will You Do Differently in The Next Financial Crisis? reader Alan Stockton wrote this comment:

I don’t think that this situation is grounds for giving up on trying to change the political playing field to reduce corporate influence. Our government “…of the people, by the people, for the people…” may now have been replaced by government “…of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations,” but the immense scale of Congress’ addiction to corporate money is a fairly recent phenomenon, and there is at least some hope of reversing it if enough of us get sufficiently aroused. For a starter, please take a look at Larry Lessig’s recent talk at , which includes a startlingly relevant comment by Abraham Lincoln on the possible corporate takeover of the government.

Here’s the referenced video:

The predictions provided in the video from Lincoln, Jefferson, and Eisenhower could be joined with many others who saw that money would eventually buy Washington. Why are we surprised to see such wise people proven correct?

I agree with almost everything Larry Lessig says in the video, because much of it makes points I make in my new book. Our differences lie in the conclusion. Lessig thinks we can reverse the moneyed takeover of government and suggests campaign finance reform as a way to do so, specifically citizen funded elections. I love the idea, but have given up on it becoming reality. I believe the US will need to face near collapse before finding the will to fix its corrupt democracy.

The reason is twofold.

First, a change in the political system would require that the politicians who have most benefited from the current system vote to change what’s working just dandy for them, thank you very much. Why would a paid-off politician vote to give an upstart a level playing field in the financial department? Unless you think the catatonic American populace is ready to rise up violently against government, then the odds of real reform in Washington are extremely low. Ask a typical dolt in line at the Post Office what they think of any critical social or political topic and you’ll be met with the eyes of a goat. Let’s face it, the majority of citizens are clueless, more excited by the new Twilight Saga movie than concerned about the hijacking of their democracy. Nearly half of eligible voters didn’t even bother showing up for the 2008 election, after all.

Second, the evidence favors my cynical view that corporate control will increase with time, not decrease. I offer as exhibit one the January 21 ruling of the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and provide below an excerpt from the evolving update document for Financially Stupid People Are Everywhere: Don’t Be One of Them:


Corporate Control of Government

I wrote on page 77: “Since the Tillman Act became law in 1907, corporations have been prohibited from contributing directly to federal candidates. They still buy candidates, of course, but for more than 100 years they’ve had to do so through political action committees and individual members of their companies.”

Not anymore! Corporate control of government got a whole lot easier in January 2010.

My book makes clear that society is stacked against citizens because corporations buy politicians and then politicians pass laws that boost profits for their corporate sponsors, often at the expense of citizens.

It’s going to get even worse, thanks to the Supreme Court’s January 21, 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporate funding of political broadcasts in elections cannot be limited under the First Amendment, which protects the right of free speech. Prior to the ruling, free speech was accorded only to humans. By the Court’s new interpretation, however, it’s now also accorded to corporations. The ruling struck down a provision of the McCain-Feingold Act that prohibited corporations and unions from broadcasting material endorsing a candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary.

If you thought corporate control of government was bad before, just wait ’til you see it now.

The following are excerpts from the Court’s dissent, which begins on page 88 of the 183-page syllabus in PDF format, written by Justice Stevens and joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, and Justice Sotomayor:

The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.

The Framers . . . took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare. Unlike our colleagues, they had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind. While individuals might join together to exercise their speech rights, business corporations, at least, were plainly not seen as facilitating such associational or expressive ends.

In light of these background practices and understandings, it seems to me implausible that the Framers believed “the freedom of speech” would extend equally to all corporate speakers, much less that it would preclude legislatures from taking limited measures to guard against corporate capture of elections.

A century of more recent history puts to rest any notion that today’s ruling is faithful to our First Amendment tradition. At the federal level, the express distinction between corporate and individual political spending on elections stretches back to 1907, when Congress passed the Tillman Act banning all corporate contributions to candidates. The Senate Report on the legislation observed that “[t]he evils of the use of [corporate] money in connection with political elections are so generally recognized that the committee deems it unnecessary to make any argument in favor of the general purpose of this measure. It is in the interest of good government and calculated to promote purity in the selection of public officials.”

President Roosevelt, in his 1905 annual message to Congress, declared: “All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law; directors should not be permitted to use stockholders’ money for such purposes; and, moreover, a prohibition of this kind would be, as far as it went, an effective method of stopping the evils aimed at in corrupt practices acts.”

The Court has surveyed the history leading up to the Tillman Act several times, and I will refrain from doing so again. It is enough to say that the Act was primarily driven by two pressing concerns: first, the enormous power corporations had come to wield in federal elections, with the accompanying threat of both actual corruption and a public perception of corruption; and second, a respect for the interest of shareholders and members in preventing the use of their money to support candidates they opposed.

The fact that corporations are different from human beings might seem to need no elaboration, except that the majority opinion almost completely elides it. . . . Unlike natural persons, corporations have “limited liability” for their owners and managers, “perpetual life,” separation of ownership and control, “and favorable treatment of the accumulation and distribution of assets . . . that enhance their ability to attract capital and to deploy their resources in ways that maximize the return on their shareholders’ investments.” Unlike voters in US elections, corporations may be foreign controlled.

It might also be added that corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their “personhood” often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of “We the People” by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.

These basic points help explain why corporate electioneering is not only more likely to impair compelling governmental interests, but also why restrictions on that electioneering are less likely to encroach upon First Amendment freedoms.

If the overriding concern depends on the interests of the audience, surely the public’s perception of the value of corporate speech should be given important weight. That perception today is the same as it was a century ago when Theodore Roosevelt delivered the speeches to Congress that, in time, led to the limited prohibition on corporate campaign expenditures that is overruled today.

The distinctive threat to democratic integrity posed by corporate domination of politics was recognized at “the inception of the republic” and “has been a persistent theme in American political life” ever since. It is only certain Members of this Court, not the listeners themselves, who have agitated for more corporate electioneering.

At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.

Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting campaign finance reform, said in the “Room for Debate” column at the New York Times opinion page on January 21, 2010:

Today’s Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case is a disaster for the American people. It will unleash unprecedented amounts of corporate “influence-seeking” money on our elections and create unprecedented opportunities for corporate “influence-buying” corruption. In a stark choice between the right of American citizens to a government free from influence-buying corruption and the economic and political interests of American corporations, five justices came down in favor of corporations.

Ralph Nader wrote on January 22, 2010 at that the ruling “shreds the fabric of our already weakened democracy by allowing corporations to more completely dominate our corrupted electoral process.” He continued:

It is outrageous that corporations already attempt to influence or bribe our political candidates through their political action committees (PACs), which solicit employees and shareholders for donations.

With this decision, corporations can now directly pour vast amounts of corporate money, through independent expenditures, into the electoral swamp already flooded with corporate campaign PAC contribution dollars. Without approval from their shareholders, corporations can reward or intimidate people running for office at the local, state, and national levels.

On January 25, 2010, the Green Party of the United States issued a press release to “urge a new constitutional amendment affirming that ‘We the People’ means humans, not corporations.”

In the release, Green Party leader Rich Whitney said, “In a transparently political decision, a majority of the US Supreme Court overturned its own recent precedent and paid tribute to the giant corporate interests that already wield tremendous power over our political process and political speech.” Green Party leader David Cobb added, “The Court relied on the illegitimate legal doctrine of ‘corporate personhood’ in order to justify this profoundly undemocratic decision. The Court has literally legalized corporate bribery of our elected officials.”

To get ahead in America, it’s essential that you understand what you’re up against. The gang of government, banks, and big business will never lose control over society. As time goes by, they gain steadily more control, not less.

Accept it, and defend yourself. Re-read the first two chapters of the book for simple ways you can guard your wealth against society’s schemes.

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  1. Alan Stockton
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Your cynicism may turn out to be correct in the end. But I do not think that absolves any of us who love this country and the ideals upon which it was founded (imperfectly, to be sure, especially regarding the matter of slavery) from doing whatever we can to try to restore it to those ideals before we get to the point of “near collapse.” I also think that your cynicism regarding politicians, while seemingly justified by their actions, is not the total picture. From my limited personal contact with a few of them, at least some go into politics from a genuine desire to serve the people they represent. I know that many of them hate the idea of having to be in effective bondage to corporations (or unions, or the NRA, take your pick) and of the need to spend half their time raising money. It is therefore not a totally crazy idea to think that many would not be adverse to a plan by which they could qualify for public funding by raising a certain significant amount solely from small donations from “citizens” (thereby excluding contributions from corporations, unions, etc.) and by promising not to accept donations from other entities. This is the carrot. There is also a stick: I believe that it is roughly 2 million of us by now who have pledged to give neither donations nor votes to candidates who are not willing to support the “Fair Elections Now” bill, cosponsored in the House by John Larson (D) and Walter Jones (R). This pledge initiative was begun only a couple of months ago, so it is not crazy to think that this wedge of the electorate could grow to comprise enough of a chunk to give politicians pause.

    In your book, you are doing your bit to help people learn to resist the blandishments of those who keep telling us that we need to have their wares to have a happy and fulfilled life. But I would also urge that you allow the possibility that we citizens, whatever our political stripe, might be able to torque the republic in some measure back to its founding principles of liberty and justice for all. And, after all, I thought that the idea that things had to get to near-total collapse before they could get better had already been patented by the Marxists.

    • Posted July 2, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

      A lovely addition to this conversation, Alan. Thank you for it. I agree that those of us who love this country should not give up hope, nor disparage people doing their best against seemingly impossible odds to restore the ideals of the land.

      Even a cynic like me has a heart, and my heart would like to see a grassroots effort like the “Fair Elections Now” movement make a real difference. I’m compelled to share the low odds of success for yet another hopeful purpose: that all of us will shore up our own family finances in case the tables remain tilted and the machine keeps gunning for our wealth.

      Don’t mistake my frustration with a lack of patriotism. I believe you don’t, but others have. I want to see the US thrive again, and I’d like it to start with strong family balance sheets.

  2. Len
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I think JLP said it best in fewer words than this inane, waste of ones’ time, article. Another in a long line of blaming those wascally corporations for all the evils of our political system. As long as we need to be trite to write an article, I for one would rather have corporations of, by and for than of, by, for……fill in the blank, unions, public workers, ACLU, community organizers, NEA, etc. At least corporations employ people that may produce something. Instead of writing generalizations of corporate greed and influence, why not provide some examples, say like how BP donated to a certain presidential campaign or other campaigns. Or, how it is we have to subsidize ethanol, real estate, corn, wind energy, education, ad-nauseum, for certain areas of the country. Once elected, why is it so easy to horse trade unlimited funds for say…oh, how about a navel base in an interior state, not naming names. The answer lies in the fact that maybe if there wasn’t so much money in Washington, there might be LESS corruption to begin with. It’s not Corporate control of Government, it’s government out of control and not financially stupid people but politically stupid people. Give me a break.

  3. Posted July 2, 2010 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    How is this any different from political parties passing out cigarettes in order to get people to vote? Isn’t that also corrupt?

    What about the influence that lawyers buy? I live in Beaumont, TX. A REPUBLICAN cannot get elected to office in this city because the lawyers own it.

    I agree that the system is a mess. It’s a mess because politicians have figured out that they can say anything to get elected because they are spending other people’s money with their promises.

    • Posted July 2, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      The influence that lawyers, public employee unions, and others exert is another valid issue that stifles government service to the broader interests of the nation. I agree. My focus on the corporate angle is not to the exclusion of other angles. It’s one of many, and because elected leaders serve at the behest of the moneyed interestes that elected them, they are not willing to sacrifice their job security for the greater good of the nation.

  4. Charlie Redmond
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    I agree, things will not change until the citizens demand change at the end of a pitchfork (hopefully a figurative one rather than a literal one, but we’ll see). Campaign finance reform is only treating the symptom, not the disease. As long as the federal gov’t is able to choose winners & loosers via the tax codes, subsidies and grants, then money will corrupt the system. If our federal gov’t lived within the confines of the constitution (pre National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation and pre US v. Butler) then there would be no reason to curry favor from federal officials, and therefore no corruption. Wholesale changes like that only happen out of inspiration or desperation. Clearly the majority isn’t inspired to make that change, so it won’t happen until there’s desperation

  5. Tom McCowan
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Jason, there is a satirically amusing, yet also frightening, project underway that you might want to check out if you haven’t already heard of it. Some people have founded a corporation called Murray Hill, Inc. for the purpose of testing the limits of the Citizens United case. Essentially, the corporation is running for Congress. They are doing such things as attempting to register the corporation to vote (since it has free speech rights) and argue that a corporation is better than a “bodied human” as a Congressperson because it never gets sick, never needs to sleep, etc., etc. Their Facebook page here can lead you to other info on them. I first heard of them when “Designated Human” Eric Hensel was interviewed on NPR.!/pages/Murray-Hill-Inc-for-Congress/314963396608?ref=ts

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