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Corporate Personhood Undermines Democracy

Posted: 01/10/12 12:28 PM ET

We don't yet know who will be running for offices high and low in the 2012 elections, but we do know a lot about what the election itself will look like. In a word, ugly.

The 2012 elections will feature unprecedented spending by corporations and the elite 1 percent, much of it channeled through independent organizations and trade associations not required to disclose their donors. In many races, unaccountable Super PACs and trade associations will spend significantly more money than candidates or political parties.
 
Independent entities spent $300 million in the 2010 federal elections, overwhelmingly on negative attack ads. They supported winners in 60 of the 75 Congressional races where party control changed.  But 2010 was just practice for 2012. Karl Rove has announced plans to raise $240 million for the 2012 elections; the Koch Brothers say they will spend at least $200 million; and there's every reason to expect the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will raise and spend at least as much.
 
The nightmare to come in 2012 is a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  Through tortuous, hyper-"activist" reasoning, the Court held for the first time that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited money on behalf of individual candidates and causes. More generally, the Court signaled that the old customary restraints on election spending no longer applied. 
 
In the wake of Citizens United, Americans have a choice: sit back and watch our democracy erode, or work to undo the decision and restore individual rights in the face of the false notion of "corporate personhood." While there are a host of reforms that would diminish the devastating impact of Citizens United -- most notably, public financing of public elections -- there is ultimately no legislative fix for Citizens United. The 5-4 majority in the case found that corporations have a protected First Amendment right to spend unlimited money on elections.  Absent the unlikely near term scenario of the Supreme Court reversing itself, we need a constitutional amendment to restore our democracy.
 
On January 4, New York City gave a powerful voice to that call. Speaker Christine Quinn, along with myself, Councilmembers Melissa Mark-Viverito, Brad Lander, Gale Brewer, and the Progressive Caucus of the City Council proposed and passed a resolution calling on Congress to amend the constitution to clarify that "corporations are not entitled to the entirety of protections or 'rights' of natural persons, specifically so that the expenditure of corporate money to influence the electoral process is no longer a form of constitutionally protected speech."
 
To read Justice Kennedy's decision in Citizens United is to enter a convoluted universe of "legal fiction" where the distinctions between living breathing human beings and intangible corporations are blissfully ignored. "Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people," wrote Justice Kennedy. On this point we all agree; but it is to citizens -- actual people -- that officials should be held accountable, not Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil or NewsCorp.
 
As anyone who has followed the Occupy Wall Street protests knows, these are not just philosophical concerns. The failure of our democracy to respond to the many urgent crises facing the nation -- from high unemployment crumbling infrastructure, and rapid global climate change -- is a direct result of excessive corporate political influence. 
 
In his powerful Citizens United dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens rightly recognized that "corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their 'personhood' often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of 'We the People' by whom and for whom our Constitution was established."
 
This should not be a controversial proposition, and indeed, Americans overwhelmingly agree with the sentiment. New York City has helped restore this simple understanding to its rightful place in constitutional jurisprudence by establishing its support through a Council resolution for a constitutional amendment.
 

This post was coauthored by New York City Councilmember Stephen T. Levin and Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.