Joel Bleifuss

In These Times

September 19, 2011

Corporations, in the Supreme Court-sanctioned guise of people, hold our democracy in thrall. Their vast wealth underwrites the campaigns of federal and state legislators. Dependent for their political survival on corporate largess, most politicians are pushed into becoming servile apologists or eager shills.

The Supreme Court began endowing corporations with the rights of people in 1886 with Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company. This slow slide was a radical departure from the Declaration of Independence under which people are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”—rights enumerated in the Constitution. Fast forward to 1976, when the Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that when it comes to political campaign spending money equals speech. Ergo, the right to spend money to influence elections cannot be unfairly curtailed. As Justice William Rehnquist wrote in his majority opinion, “[V]irtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money.”

The contorted logic culminated on January 21, 2010, when the conservative majority on the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations (along with unions and nonprofit organizations) were endowed with the same free speech rights as flesh-and-blood people. As persons, corporations—no matter how metaphorical their personhood—can spend as much money as they like to support or defeat candidates.

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