03/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Democracy, Now Brought To You By Coke And Pepsi

The newly-activist Supreme Court ruled today in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations in the United States have an absolute right to free speech that includes the right to run multi-million dollar advertising campaigns for or against candidates, just as Mark Green predicted after oral arguments last December. The decision overturns nearly 100 years of precedent and Congressional action against such spending on the basis of an earlier ruling that corporations are citizens (though they aren't yet accorded the right to vote.)

In an interesting twist, the actual case the Supreme Court was asked to decide had absolutely nothing to do with whether corporations were allowed to fund campaign advertisements. Rather, Citizens United asked the Supreme Court to rule that its anti-Hillary Clinton movie, creatively called "Hillary:The Movie," was not political speech under the law and thus not subject to donor-disclosure requirements and didn't need to end its television advertisements with disclosures that they had funded the movie. The Supreme Court categorically rejected Citizens United's arguments, ruling that such disclosures were required for Citizens United and constitutional.

How did the Supreme Court end up ruling on corporate candidate commercials over a movie made by a non-profit? They called the litigants back into court last December and asked them about it, even though the issue wasn't part of the suit, thus making the question of corporate advertising part of the case. Apparently, the Supreme Court's conservatives are only concerned about judicial activism when it involves actual Americans' rights.

What the Supreme Court's decision today means is that corporations can run their own advertisements for or against political candidates, as long as they are branded by the corporations and are not coordinated with the candidates themselves. In the decision, the Court strongly hinted that they hadn't decided to allow corporations to contribute directly to or coordinate with candidates only because they couldn't come up with some relevant question to ask to allow them to do so--so that might not be too far off.

The ruling is based on a 19th century Supreme Court footnote that says corporations are entitled to the 14th Amendment protection of equal treatment under the law, and a more recent one that accords campaign spending--money--the same status as speech. On the basis of these two rulings, the Court threw out the ban on direct corporate (and, by extension, union) spending to support candidates. The midterm election can now be brought to you by Pepsi and Coke--or any other company with the money to spend to elect candidates they think will be better for their bottom line.

The Supreme Court's conservative majority rejected arguments that spending shareholder money on political advertisements could violate the rights of shareholders; it rejected arguments that overseas investments in or by American corporations could encourage them to support candidates who don't have only America's interests in mind; and it rejected arguments and long-standing American sentiment that elections should be, as much as possible, influenced and decided by the people who can vote in those elections. And, in the end, it told the plaintiff exactly what the lower courts said: that the FEC was correct in its interpretation of how the law pertains to "Hillary:The Movie." But no one--let alone Citizens United or the Supreme Court--cares about a crappy movie. They apparently only took the case to be able to throw out laws that keep corporations from spending millions--if not billions--to influence the American electoral process in the name of free speech.

The only thing that might keep corporations like Exxon from spending some small percentage of its multi-billion dollar yearly profits to support a Drill-Baby-Drill candidate is the fear that some percentage of Americans might choose to boycott Mobil stations over that support. But if every oil company supports the same candidate, from whom will anyone get the gas they need to feed our collective fossil fuel addiction? If Pepsi and Coke support Sarah Palin in 2012, are liberals going to switch en masse to generic cola? If every company supports candidates you hate in order to support anti-regulatory, anti-tax agendas that will negatively impact the environment, our schools and everything else our government spends its tax revenues on, where else will consumers go? Corporations will, in effect, be able to advertise for their preferred candidates with virtual impunity and no one knows better than corporations how effective advertising can be.

Short of waiting for another case to wend its way to a differently-constituted Court, there is only one real way to get around this decision, or any of the worse ones -- like corporate electoral rights or corporate direct donation rights -- telegraphed by some of the specific holdings of the Roberts Court. Either we take the significant time and effort to amend the Constitution to overrule the Supreme Court decision that corporations are entitled to equal protection under the law, or we accept that, as shareholders, customers and employees, our dividends, purchases and raises will be spent to convince us to elect officials who will do what's best for the company's bottom line and the CEO's bonus.