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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?

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.

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

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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