Most of us celebrated the Fourth of July by barbecuing, doing a few 12-ounce elbow bends and setting off some fireworks. Some of us might have paused for a moment to reflect on that thing Thomas Jefferson wrote about 238 years ago: The Declaration of Independence.
“We the People” are faced — right now — with another of those “when in the course of human events” moments Jefferson wrote about. Not only is this a month to reconnect with our revolutionary heritage but it’s also the appropriate time for re-declaring our independence, this time from “They the Corporations.”
With little coverage by the mass media, and with the complicity of most lawmakers, domineering corporations have quietly but aggressively used the U.S. Supreme Court itself to write them and their money into the Constitution as our sovereigns. As legal scholar and Democratic activist Jamie Raskin said in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in June: “In several recent 5-4 decisions, the wall protecting democracy from plutocracy has been crumbling under judicial attack.”
Just one year after their Citizens United decision unleashed CEOs to be able to roll truckloads of their shareholders’ funds into our elections (without asking those shareholders for permission or even informing them after the fact), that five assaulted our democracy again. Their 2011 verdict in the Arizona Free Enterprise Club case increased the volume of CorporateSpeak in elections by decreasing the speech of nonrich candidates. Specifically, they rejected the will of Arizonans who had voted to provide public funds for candidates who are willing to forego all special-interest money. This system gave the political ideas of the nonwealthy a chance to be heard when up against super-wealthy oligarchs. Public financing of elections was successfully widening public debate and freeing up political speech, so the same five corporate supremists stepped in to kill it, absurdly declaring that such laws give an “unfair advantage” to little-guy campaigns.
Next came this year’s McCutcheon opinion, in which the same five blew the lid off the limits on money that an individual can pour on candidates during any given election cycle. The limit had been $123,000 — high enough that only about 600 people out of our 330 million reached that maximum in 2012.
The court’s narrow majority lifted the allowable total for one person’s election-year spending to a stunning $5.9 million. That empowers a handful of the richest of rich donors — even fewer than 600 — to overwhelm the political voices of millions of common citizens, all in the name of free speech. Adding to this absurdity, this five-man wrecking crew blithely declares in its McCutcheon ruling that even transactions that appear to be obvious conflicts of interest are permissible (e.g., a CEO can give $25,000 to the head of a congressional committee — the same person who a week later can put a bill on the floor to benefit the CEO’s corporation). Such corrupt transactions apparently “do not justify” putting restrictions on campaign contributions. Instead, the wily five ruled that the only donor-to-donee corruption that can be regulated is outright quid pro quo bribery.
And do not think that this is as far as the court will go to empower Big Money. Already, corporate lawyers are asking the judiciary to strike down all limits on what each millionaire/billionaire can spend to elect or defeat any number of candidates, and they’re pushing to reverse 29 state bans on campaign donations during legislative sessions (when lawmakers and lobbyists are in heat and most open to exchanging favors for money).
The unstated (but now abundantly clear) goal of the five co-conspirators is nothing less than the establishment of a free-market plutocracy over what used to be America. Eaten up with Ayn Randian dogma, they are using their judicial positions to commodify political participation, converting our elections (the ultimate public function) into just another private market for buying and selling. Why not just authorize the commodity exchanges to post the daily selling prices of politicians alongside the growing rate for pork bellies and Texas crude? Or why not rule that Wall Street can peddle derivatives based on bulk packages of subprime officeholders. But let’s not give them ideas. With this court’s corporate quintet on the loose, absolute absurdity is no longer unimaginable.
But we can stop them. We need to treat the “free” in free speech as a verb, not an adjective. Let’s join together around a constitutional amendment to free up the people’s rights from the corporate usurpers. Sixteen states and hundreds of cities, towns and municipalities have joined. Click here for more information on Democracy Is for People.
— Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JimHightower, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.