Court Gives Corporations More Power Than People

by Tyler Murphy

In 2002, the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act was passed in an attempt to regulate political campaign financing, limit contributions and reduce the influence of money in federal elections. Ever since then, the conservative right has engaged in a fierce and intensive war against what it considers the Act’s restriction on “free speech.” Money, they argue, is free speech and any attempt to regulate who gives how much money to political campaigns is a violation of the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. Kentucky’s own Mitch McConnell carried the banner in the fight against McCain-Feingold (no surprise given the millions McConnell receives in corporate contributions), a fight that culminated in the Supreme Court upholding many of the Act’s provisions in “McConnell v. Federal Election Commission.”

But the right did not give up. They chose instead to ensconce their message in a more polarizing legal battle that would rally their supporters. Cue the production of “Hillary: The Movie,” a disgusting, despicable anti-Hillary Clinton political advertisement crafted in the guise of a documentary. The film, meant to air on DirecTV and select theaters before the 2008 Democratic Primaries, was funded by conservative front group Citizens United. Under McCain-Feingold, however, corporations and for-profit organizations are prohibited from spending money to air “electioneering communications” and the movie’s presentation was prohibited.

What ensued was the legal battle those on the right had long desired. The case made it to the Supreme Court, which last month sided with Citizens United in a landmark 5-4 decision that shakes the very foundations of democracy. The Court used the narrow legal question presented in the case to roll back a century of laws governing corporate campaign contributions – including laws first signed by President Theodore Roosevelt.

In issuing this opinion the Court acknowledges its belief that there are some entities which can legally be granted more participation than individuals in our democracy. It signals to voters that corporate money is more important than votes in our federal elections, opening the floodgates to a free corporate market of politicians – in which legislation and ideas are bought and sold to the highest bidder.

The last two elections demonstrated a profound transformation in American politics with the rise of grassroots activism. Record amounts of money were raised by candidates from record numbers of small donors. People became involved and contributed their money because they felt part of something larger. In one ruling, five Supreme Court Justices have turned back the clock on this progress, shackled the power of the individual voter, uprooted the grass and planted political power in the garden of corporate America.

Indeed, the same right wing that warns of the perils of “legislating from the bench” is celebrating from one of the largest examples of judicial overreach in American history. Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Kennedy played the score as was written for them in “Citizens United,” ruling on a question not directly raised in the case.

As Justice Stevens wrote in his dissenting opinion, the majority “changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”

The implications of the “Citizens United” decision cannot be overstated. It places the very integrity of American elections in peril and undermines the proverbial power of the people in our elections. There is only one solution to ridding elections of corporate influence and the inequity inherent in fundraising: public financing of federal elections. Only when contributions come from the same fund and in the same amount can we take the too-powerful influence of money out of politics.


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