This Court now concludes that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance
of corruption. That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt.
– US Supreme Court, Citizens United vs FEC
That might be the biggest punchline in the Court’s chock-full of laughs decision removing the already limited restraints on corporate control of the election process. Never has the First Amendment been brought so low in service of the few trampling on the rights of the many. But that’s what the Court’s for, isn’t it? We’re going to hear much wailing from good government and campaign finance folks, but really, the Court did us all a favor. It removed the ruse. All you have to do is peruse Open Secrets for a few minutes to see how pervasive and powerful corporate money is in our political process. Or as Justice Stevens noted in his worth reading dissent:
So let us be clear: Neither Austin nor McConnell held or implied that corporations may be silenced; the FEC is not a “censor”; and in the years since these cases were decided, corporations have continued to play a major role in the national dialogue.
Over the course of the last century pretty much every effort to rein in corporate power has been a dismal failure. Today, political and economic power is concentrated in mega-corporations to an extent not reached even at the height of the Gilded Age. And one government institution, more than any other, has both created and protected corporate power, it is the Supreme Court. So, today’s decision certainly has much precedent.
This republic and the modern corporate structure were birthed in the same era, and at the very best conducted an uneasy relationship. At the dawn of the first Gilded Age, the great grandsons of America’s second president John Adams, Henry and Charles Adams would warn in their “Chapters of Erie”:
“And yet already our great corporations are fast emancipating themselves from the State, or rather subjecting the State to their own control, while individual capitalists, who long ago abandoned the attempt to compete with them, will next seek to control them. In this dangerous path of centralization Vanderbilt has taken the latest step in advance. He has combined the natural power of the individual with the factitious power of the corporation. The famous “L’Etat, c’est moi” of Louis XIV represents Vanderbilt’s position in regard to his railroads. Unconsciously he has introduced Caesarism into corporate life. He has, however, but pointed out the way which others will tread. The individual will hereafter be engrafted on the corporation, democracy running its course, and resulting in imperialism; and Vanderbilt is but the precursor of a class of men who will wield within the State a power created by the State, but too great for its control. He is the founder of a dynasty.”
In fits and phases over the course of the next 150 years, the republic has tried to address the questions of corporate power, never with much success. The main obstacle being the question of corporate power requires a fundamental grappling with the basic structures of power. Questions that have for the most part been strenuously avoided for over a century, that is, since the corporations gained enough power to stifle debate. The real underlying question of corporate power has to do with fundamental political physics. Power is like gravity, it attracts. Once you create a mass of power, such as a giant corporation, it automatically begins attracting all the power around it. The only way to stop it is by breaking it up.
This was understood a hundred years ago in the anti-trust debates and the thinking of such people as Louis Brandeis. It was wisdom of the old republic. Democracy, any self-government, is inherently decentralized. Yet this notion was lost and no more so with the New Deal, which made an assertion that the power of corporations could be measured with an equal and opposite governmental force. But anyone without blinders can see clearly in 2010, this approach has failed.
The Court’s decision allows us to have a more fundamental debate, one in which the power of our mega-corporations is put front and center. A debate that gets to fundamental issues of power across our society, and thus to the very question of what we call government. The US constitution was once a radical and visionary document on implementing self-government. After 200 years, it is now used to thwart those very ends.