Category Archives: Analysis

The Supreme Court, free speech and corporations cleaning clocks

Liberty bound

Taking the principle of corporate-personhood to its long delayed conclusion, the Supreme Court today ruled that it is a violation of free speech to restrict the rights of corporations to endorse and promote political candidates. Establishment Republicans like George Will are calling it a ‘free speech’ victory, but its really a win for ‘paid speech’. Corporate speech was formerly directed through Political Action Committees and raised from individual contributors at no more than $2500 a pop. Not any more. So long as political spending is not directly coordinated with a candidate’s campaign, corporations may spend whatever they like as much as they like on whomsoever they like. This will further distort politics to the concerns of the biggest, best-financed and most centrally directed political players.

Consider the gut level libertarian arguments for free corporate political speech in light of this:

Under the old dispensation, which prohibited direct corporate expenditures on elections for nearly a century, Exxon Mobil could spend only what its political action committee raised from executives and employees. In 2008, said Waldman, that was roughly $1 million. Under the new order, the world’s biggest oil company can spend as much as its management cares to siphon from its earnings — which in 2008 amounted to $45 billion.

Source: Joe Conason citing Michael Waldman, “Where are the real populists now?
Tea-party activists claim to represent Main Street, not Wall Street. So will they let corporate money rule America?
‘ Salon.com

I don’t think its too hard to figure out where the extra money being injected into politics will take these mobs. Further right, using whatever social ferment is handy. Anti-immigration, for example.

But why did this populist backlash align itself so quickly against the health care initiative intended to help working people? For that you have to look to the Democrats and the lack of a functional and independent progressive movement.

A day late and a dollar short, David Corn wonders why tea party people don’t trust the Democrats and comes up with this: the rhetoric and the reality of the Democrats don’t match.

The currently prescribed role of the Dems is to be the “Party of the People.” But they can’t attain or retain office without cash flow from the very corporations that are the people’s worst enemy.

They are thus politically bi-polar. They can never offer meaningful cures for any of America’s real problems because they must always return to the trough of the corporations that cause the bulk of them.

Source: Dead Center: Weimar Democrats
by Harvey Wasserman. Counterpunch.org.

So there is a double disappointment. Progressives who want to support Democratic initiatives only do so through periodic delusions that they may ‘take the party back’ in the effort. Working class independents trust their own eyes to see that Obama (like Clinton before him) bureaucratized rather than solved problems. In the absence of Democratic aid to their most loyal constituency, the party of FDR’s reputation as being fighters for the working class has gone from threadbare to beyond transparency.

Now today, the Supreme Court has coincidentally confirmed the corporate dominance of US politics in today’s opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission which effectively removes 63 year old restrictions on the corporate political speech.  David Corn, writing in Mother Jones magazine, summarizes Justice John Paul Stevens dissent to the 5-4 decision:

* Even more misguided is the notion that the Court must rewrite the law relating to campaign expenditures by for-profit corporations and unions to decide this case.

* The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case.

* Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters.

* The financial resources, legal structure,and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.

* The majority’s approach to corporate electioneering marks a dramatic break from our past. Congress hasplaced special limitations on campaign spending by corporations ever since the passage of the Tillman Act in 1907….We have unanimously concluded [in 1982] that this “reflects a permissible assessment of the dangers posed by those entities to the electoral process”…and have accepted the “legislative judgment that the special characteristics of the corporate structure require particularly careful regulation…The Court today rejects a century of history when it treats the distinction between corporate and individual campaignspending as an invidious novelty born [in a 1990 opinion].

* 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.

Source: Stevens Accuses Supreme Court Conservatives of Judicial Activism.
By David Corn. Mother Jones.com

I can already hear libertarian friends of mine arguing that the decision is a victory for free speech: if Duke Power runs commercials endorsing Sarah Palin, then the SC AFL-CIO can run ads recommending that you vote for Obama. So it will all balance out, right?

Corporations already spend many times more on political campaigns than unions. And while individual contributions make up the majority of political donations, corporations have the resources to overpower small donors in elections. But the truth is that in most elections, the power of incumbents to gravitationally attract money already rule out insurgent campaigns.

Here in South Carolina with all the corporate dollars flowing to Jim Demint you’d be forgiven for wondering what difference it would make. Demint’s Democratic rivals are all well behind him in fundraising by several million dollars to none as of the last quarter of 09.

The Supreme Court decision will not matter one way or the other in the Demit race. What it will do is free corporations to comment directly on elections campaigns. Corporate think tanks already dominate the pool of new show pundits, they already own all the major media outlets and sponsor the programming . The one national media outfit not supported from, consisting of or underwritten by a for-profit corporation is the Pacifica Network. Good luck finding “Democracy Now!” in your area. Hitting the nail in the coffin: Air America went bankrupt today and will cease broadcasting tonight.

For years the restriction on corporate speech has been theoretically balanced by extending the ban to labor unions. The ban was circumvented by Political Action Committees in the 1940s, then exploded with the growth of soft money spending in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Bill Clinton famously used soft-contributions to bring Democrats up to par with the Republicans in fundraising. But while labor unions do give an awful lot of money to the Democrats, they don’t give as much as corporations do and in their current state would be hard pressed to give any more. My feeling is that they will give a lot less money to local candidates in areas like the South. At the same time, corporations will ramp up their donations, both on the local level and nationally. If the National Association of Manufacturers or the National Chamber of Commerce can spend money directly on a campaign, without going through a PAC, their wealth will give them a commanding voice in any topic, large or small.

If a paper mill wants to set up inside your town, they can in effect buy a local election to ensure their advocate gets into the state legislature. No local organization will have the resources to compete with the message of Quebecor. Business-minded Libertarians I read crowing about this as a victory for free speech will probably find their interests do not coincide with corporations always, or even most times. The stultifying effect of campaign on local activity and regional campaigns is already killing local democracy.  South Carolina needs local democratic institutions that will circle the wagons and articulate and individualist argument for personal freedom against the power of corporations.

Consider regressive taxation.  Last night in his final State of the State address, Governor Sanford spoke about raising the tax on cigarettes, but only to lower the corporate tax rate.   Local and national politics plays out this game of winners and losers everyday and generally the trend is to distribute what corporations feel as a burden onto the citizenry, with no compensation.   We are already well down the slope.  A lot of liberals are waking up this week, but we’ll need new institutions to get out.  Consumer unions?  Local assemblies? Workplace associations? The Industrial Workers of the World?   All this and more.

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Favorite Post-Mortems on Massachusetts Senate election

Setting aside the likely end of the health care bill for the moment…

If there is one positive aspect to Martha Coakley’s loss is that is has exposed a fracture in the Democratic Party. If there is a downside, its that the loss is being misinterpreted by the Right in both parties to blame progressives for the loss. This despite the fact that “the Left” in the Democratic Party has gotten exactly nothing in the last year from the Obama Administration, as Glenn Greenwald points out in his Salon column today.

People who have always considered themselves to be Democrats, or ‘independent progressives’ are waking up to the fact that they have nothing no more say in the ‘clapped out, gut-free lobbyist machine’ that is the Democratic Party.

A demobilized and demoralized progressive vote didn’t turn out for Coakley as they had for Obama. I doubt Obama could rouse them again. As the national Democratic party tacks against the left again, the disappointment among activists will be palpable. The results could be interesting. I think there will be more of a push to run national and congressional progressive campaigns in 2012, probably with results a little better than last time.

It will be more interesting to see how local politics develop, if ward committees are reestablished that could become independent of the Democratic center.

Here are a few of my favorite articles from the last few days covering the progressive Democrat reaction to the Coakley loss.

January 15, 2010:

  • Russell Mokhiber. Coakley’s Corporate Connection. Published on Friday, January 15, 2010 by Single Payer Action.

    On the big screen at Cato is an invitation to a corporate fundraiser – that night at the Sonoma Restaurant on Capitol Hill – for Coakley…Coakley is in the middle of a tight race and she’s flying to DC one week before the election to be with a group of corporate lobbyists? Yes. She is. And then Carney went down the list of 22 members of the host committees – meaning they each raised $10,000 or more for Coakley. “Seventeen are federally registered lobbyists, 15 of whom have health-care clients,” Carney said. “You see the names – Gerald Cassidy, David Castagnetti,, Tommy Boggs – those are all lobbyists I’ve highlighted there who have clients who are drug companies, health insurers, hospitals or all three,” Carney said. “AHIP, Phrma, Pfizer, Blue Cross – everybody is covered there. Aetna somehow isn’t. I don’t know how they got left out. These are the special interests,” Carney said. “These are the people trying to elect Martha Coakley to be vote number 60 for health insurance.”

    January 17, 2010:

  • Robert Kuttner. A Wake Up Call. Huffingtonpost.com

So, how did Democrats get saddled with this bill? Begin with Rahm Emanuel. The White House chief of staff, who was once Bill Clinton’s political director, drew three lessons from the defeat of Clinton-care. All three were wrong. First, get it done early (Clinton’s task force had dithered.) Second, leave the details to Congress (Clinton had presented Congress with a fully-baked cake.) Third, don’t get on the wrong side of the insurance and drug industries (The insurers’ fictitious couple, Harry and Louise, had cleaned Clinton’s clock…

The politics got horribly muddled. By embracing a deal that required the government to come up with a trillion dollars of subsidy for the insurance industry, Obama was forced to pursue policies that were justifiably unpopular — such as taxing premiums of people with decent insurance; or compelling people to buy policies that they often couldn’t afford, or diverting money from Medicare. He managed to scare silly the single most satisfied clientele of our one island of efficient single-payer health insurance — senior citizens — and to alienate one of his most loyal constituencies, trade unionists.The bill helped about two-thirds of America’s uninsured, but did almost nothing for the 85 percent of Americans with insurance that is becoming more costly and unreliable by the day — except frighten them into believing that what little they have is at increased risk of being taken away.

All of this made things easier for the right, and left people to take seriously even preposterous allegations such as the nonsense about death panels. It got so ass-backwards that the other day Ben Nelson, who successfully held out for anti-abortion language and a sweetheart deal for Nebraska’s Medicaid as the price of his vote, found himself facing a wholesale voter backlash.

Nelson began running TV spots assuring Nebraska voters that the Obama health plan is “not run by the government.” That’s one hell of a slogan for a party that relies on democratically elected government to offset the insecurity, inequality and insanity generated by private commercial forces. If not-run-by-government is the Democrats’ credo, why bother?

January 18, 2010:

  • Andrew Sullivan. A Looming Landslide For Brown. The Atlantic online.

    In fact, any legislative moves with this Democratic party and this Republican party are close to hopeless. The Democrats are a clapped out, gut-free lobbyist machine. The Republicans are insane. The system is therefore paralyzed beyond repair.

    January 19, 2010

  • Ryan Grim. Coakley Pollster Defends Campaign Against White House. Huffingtonpost.com

The feeling among voters, said Lake, is that Washington prioritizes Wall Street over Main Street and that, despite Coakley’s credentials as a state attorney general who has taken on and beaten Wall Street banks, sending her to Washington would not make a difference. “On the eve of the election, Martha Coakley had a 21-point advantage over Scott Brown on who would fight Wall Street and deliver for Main Street. But it didn’t predict to the vote, because voters thought, even if they sent her down here that it wouldn’t happen. ‘Fine, she had done it in Massachusetts, but no one was doing it in Washington,'” Lake said. “Voters are voting for change and we have to go back to that change message. And we have to deliver on change, especially an economic policy that serves working people.”

January 20, 2010:

He worked on the unrealistic assumption that his really was a post-racial, post-partisan, post-red-state-blue-state America. He spent a year and endless energy in trying to please and recruit the Olympia Snowes and Charles Grassleys and Max Baucuses and Big Pharmacies. He let them dictate the pace and the terms of the health care debate, making it hostage to the virulent town hall meetings of the summer of 2009. They were never going to be his allies. He should have identified them as his foes early on, and attacked them as such.

Think about this: the public option was supported by a huge majority of the public. At times, 70 percent of the public supported it. Did 70 percent of the population vote for Barack Obama? No! The public option was an idea that found common cause with progressives, moderates and McCain voters. Congressional Democrats, with filibuster-proof supermajorities, could not manage to fight for — let alone pass — a bill with something broadly supported by massive swaths of the public.

And so the public, predictably, has soured on health care reform. (And Democrats know that a cross-section of generic opposition to health care reform is against it solely on the grounds that it is not progressive enough — this, they believe, is “good news!”)

The very idea that an administration run by Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel and staffed with centrists, Wall Street mavens, and former Bush officials — and a Congress beholden to Blue Dogs and Lieberdems — has been captive “to the Left” is so patently false that everyone should be too embarrassed to utter it. For better or worse, the Democratic strategy has long been and still is to steer clear of their leftist base and instead govern as “pragmatists” and centrists — which means keeping the permanent Washington factions pleased. That strategy may or not be politically shrewd, but it is just a fact that the dreaded “Left” has gotten very little of what it wanted the entire year. Is there anyone who actually believes that “The Left” is in control of anything, let alone the Democratic Party? The fact that Lanny Davis — to prove the Left’s dominance — has to cite one provision that was jettisoned (the public option) and another which the Left hates (the mandate) reflects how false that claim is. What are all of the Far Left policies the Democrats have been enacting and Obama has been advocating? I’d honestly love to know.

If Americans are repudiating “big government,” it’s because they see the government helping Wall Street, rather than working people–hardly an endorsement of Republican trickle-down economics.

But if Democrats are the party in power and seen as fronting for Wall Street or the insurance cartel, an angry electorate looking for some bums to throw out of office will toss the Democrats. And as long as there’s no credible third party alternative from the left, the Republicans and the right will benefit from Democratic losses.

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