This article was originally published in Sojourners (free registration required).
While the influence of large corporations in our political process is already enormous, the Supreme Court’s Jan. 21 ruling to permit unlimited corporate financing in elections will open the floodgates of increased corporate influence over our democratic electoral process. Consider how powerful corporate lobbies have already blocked meaningful health-care and climate change policy from being enacted, or how Wall Street has thwarted even modest regulation of the financial sector after the economic meltdown.
It’s hard to imagine the balance of power being skewed any further than it already is. Of the world’s 200 largest economies, 133 are corporations and 67 are nation-states. The 500 largest U.S. corporations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce already spend hundreds of millions in lobbying, campaign-oriented advertising, and other contributions that shape the context of our civic dialogue.
At the core of this debate is the fundamental question of what is a corporation—and whether it should have the rights of personhood, including freedom of speech. Constitutional scholar Jamie Raskin observes, “Up until the Roberts Court, we’ve had an unbroken line of precedent saying that a corporation is something created by the people, by the states, to serve our objectives as people. Now the Supreme Court has created a Frankenstein monster and said that this creature of the people, this creature of the state, can intervene in our politics and spend its money as it pleases. That’s an extraordinarily dangerous thing.” The Supreme Court has spoken, giving a preferential option to corporations against the interests of a healthy democracy and the common good. But there are a few courses of action—both immediate and longer term—that can undo the impacts of this decision. Creating a public financing system of elections would be helpful, but may be the equivalent of simply giving David another slingshot in his mismatched struggle with Goliath.
Public Citizen and a coalition of other groups believe the best solution is to pass a “free speech for people” amendment (www.freespeechforpeople.org) to contain corporate free speech. For corporations above a certain size and that operate across state and national borders, Congress should establish a federal system of corporate chartering to reassert the obligation of corporations to serve a public purpose and ensure their existence is subordinate to the common good. It could circumscribe their rights of personhood and clearly spell out the terms of their responsibilities to communities, workers, and the environment.
In 1976, the Senate Commerce Committee convened extensive hearings on “Corporate Rights and Responsibilities.” New Hampshire Sen. John Durkin opened the hearings by expressing alarm about the dangers of concentrated corporate wealth and power. He asked, “How do we control and hold accountable huge institutions and make them relevant and understandable to ordinary people?” He later concluded that the “tool with the most promise of bringing these giants into tow, the corporate charter, has developed into a revenue source for which the various states compete by relaxing their chartering requirements.” The proposed solution was establishment of a federal chartering system for the largest 1,000 corporations. Big-picture initiatives like these will require us to dramatically rethink the role of global corporations in our society and organize ourselves into popular movements that immediately respond when the highest court usurps the power of the people in favor of private commercial interests.