In Citizens United v. FEC, five justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have decided that corporations are free to invest in the outcomes of elections, and that the federal government must shelter them against the will of the people.
As far as those five justices are concerned, their decision is final. It is not. There is a higher authority on whose bench every U.S. citizen serves: We the People. The Constitution is our national charter and belongs in our stewardship; the courts, corporations, and all the instruments of government must give way to the American people.
The Citizens United majority clothed its decision in the language of our First Amendment: Corporations belong to a class of “disadvantaged persons” entitled to free speech rights.
The use of the word “person” could not have been more deliberate. The purpose of our Constitution “is to keep the government off the backs of the people,” according to the great 20th century defender of free speech, Justice William O. Douglas. When corporations are accorded the rights as people, they cross into a realm the government may not easily enter.
Justice John Paul Stevens took the majority to task for its false revisionism, writing for the four dissenting justices that: “Unlike our colleagues, [the Framers] had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind.”
The back history to the Court’s new jurisprudence is convoluted. As is becoming more commonly known, the Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad decision of 1886 was the first in a series of judicial interventions that have escorted the personhood of the corporation into constitutional law. The Citizens United ruling was not another step in this history. It was the destination.
Corporate America is ready to exercise its newfound right. The same week that Citizens United was decided, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the lobbying arm of Wall Street, announced its intention to challenge President Obama’s proposed tax on big banks as unconstitutionally discriminatory. Remember, banks are people, too.
Where has this led us?
• Congress may not bar corporations from investing in elections.
• The president may not “discriminate” in favor of community banks and against big banks.
• Federal regulatory agencies may not enforce workplace safety rules without a court order.
• State governments may not divest from corporations that profit from slave labor.
• Local governments may not provide services that compete with for-profit telecommunications companies.
All told, we the people may not wield our power to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Where does this end?
The only genuine alternative to de facto acquiescence to the Court’s dictate is a democracy movement – a new American renaissance organized from below, based in communities across America, and prepared to overrule the Court by reclaiming, amending, and renewing our Constitution.
Constitutional amendments are difficult to achieve. But given the terrible state of national politics today – the frustration of majority-will through the filibuster, the power of corporate lobbyists, the corporatization of vote-tabulation and, now, corporate financing of elections themselves through unlimited ads for or against their chosen candidates – would it really be easier to enact meaningful federal legislation? And would that legislation, even if adopted, survive in the face of a Supreme Court dedicated to defending the rights of corporations? A dose of realism, a sense of gravity, is required.
Within one day of the ruling in Citizens United, 25,000 Americans from across the country launched MovetoAmend.org – a movement to renew the Constitution with a series of democracy amendments, beginning, first and foremost, with overturning this decision and ending the growing reign of the corporation. Since then, we’ve been joined by tens of thousands more.
Ours is a long-term movement. Our efforts will begin in the states, not in Washington. If members of Congress take note and support our efforts, so much the better. We are not counting on them, but we welcome them. The Supreme Court has decided, and we have decided. What will you decide?
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Lisa Graves is the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, the publisher of SourceWatch.org and PRWatch.org. She was deputy assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice and is on the executive committee of MovetoAmend.org.