The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday drove the final nail into the coffin containing a dead American concept called democracy.
In a 5-4 vote, the court lifted virtually all limits on corporate spending on election campaigns, opening the door to total and complete control of the electoral process by big business and labor unions.
Gone are limits on what a business can spend on behalf of or against a candidate. Gone are any restrictions that prevented massive conglomerates from buying and entire Congress and the Presidency.
Gone is democracy. Dead. Buried. Forgotten.
The Supreme Court has opened the door to a new era of big and possibly shadowy election spending, rolled back anti-corruption laws and emboldened critics of fundraising limits to press on. In the middle of it all will be voters, trying to figure out who’s telling the truth.
The court’s ruling Thursday lets corporate America start advertising candidates much as they market products and tell viewers to vote for or against them. While it almost certainly will lead to a barrage of hard-hitting TV ads in the 2010 elections, its implications reach far beyond that.
The ruling was a victory for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the National Rifle Association and other interest groups most likely to run ads with money from their treasuries. It’s unlikely major corporations would want their name on an ad, but they can avoid that by giving money to interest groups, who would then run ads and disclose the spending under the groups’ names. It also presents a new option to wealthy individuals who were allowed to spend millions on their own to run election-time candidate ads before, but now can join forces to do so and get more bang for their bucks.
The New York Times weighs in with a scatching editorial:
With a single, disastrous 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court’s conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.
Congress must act immediately to limit the damage of this radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy.
As a result of Thursday’s ruling, corporations have been unleashed from the longstanding ban against their spending directly on political campaigns and will be free to spend as much money as they want to elect and defeat candidates. If a member of Congress tries to stand up to a wealthy special interest, its lobbyists can credibly threaten: We’ll spend whatever it takes to defeat you.
The ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission radically reverses well-established law and erodes a wall that has stood for a century between corporations and electoral politics. (The ruling also frees up labor unions to spend, though they have far less money at their disposal.)
The founders of this nation warned about the dangers of corporate influence. The Constitution they wrote mentions many things and assigns them rights and protections — the people, militias, the press, religions. But it does not mention corporations.
In 1907, as corporations reached new heights of wealth and power, Congress made its views of the relationship between corporations and campaigning clear: It banned them from contributing to candidates. At midcentury, it enacted the broader ban on spending that was repeatedly reaffirmed over the decades until it was struck down on Thursday.
This issue should never have been before the court. The justices overreached and seized on a case involving a narrower, technical question involving the broadcast of a movie that attacked Hillary Rodham Clinton during the 2008 campaign. The court elevated that case to a forum for striking down the entire ban on corporate spending and then rushed the process of hearing the case at breakneck speed. It gave lawyers a month to prepare briefs on an issue of enormous complexity, and it scheduled arguments during its vacation.
I pulled out my DVD of “Network” last night and watched Ned Beatty’s Ocscar-nominated performance as a mega-conglomerate CEO who calls news anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) on the carpet for questioning a merger involving the company that owns the television network:
You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it!! Is that clear?! You think you’ve merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case. The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance!
You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels.
It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU WILL ATONE!
Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?
You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.
What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state — Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do.
We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.
Paddy Chayefskey’s brilliant script was considered satire when he wrote it back in 1976. Now it’s television fantasy come true. Governments will no longer be pawns of big business. Big business will be governments. The Supreme Court has given them the ability to legally buy the government they want and impose their will on a people who are powerless to resist.
No, the end is not near and the sky is not falling.
The end is here and the sky fell…and buried us all.