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Warren Goldstein Headshot

Back to the Gilded Age!

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A little over nine years ago (December 12, 2000) the conservative majority on the Supreme Court intervened in the disputed presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Throwing its own (new federalist) legal scruples to the winds, the majority twisted itself in legal knots in order to deliver the Presidency to the candidate who would restock the federal courts, and the Supreme Court itself, with reliable right-wingers. As an exercise in raw partisan political power, Bush v. Gore had few historical precedents.

And it was fantastically successful, not only installing a serious candidate for the worst president in all of American history, but also opening the spigot on a pipeline of judicial ideologues that will shape constitutional law for at least a generation. Chief Justice John Roberts and his Bush-era sidekick Samuel Alito (whose appointments Democrats would not filibuster), along with former swing voter Anthony Kennedy and the appalling Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are well on their way to putting their stamp on a Court prepared to reverse many of the most important civil rights, due process, and anti-discrimination gains of the past half-century.

Today, though, they took a giant step back to the late 19th century, a dreadful period in American history (that Mark Twain dubbed The Gilded Age) in which corporations--industrial, financial, and railroad--ran pretty much everything, from state legislatures (which they bought with impunity) and governors to Congress and the judiciary. Railroad and corporate lawyers stocked the courts, including the nation's highest, where they considered it their sacred duty to protect the interests of corporations--already the richest, most powerful, and most rapacious economic entities in human history--under the ingenious theory that they were "persons" protected by the 14th Amendment, designed to protect the rights of newly freed slaves following the Civil War.

After a Presidential campaign that raised more money from small donors than ever before in history, our brave conservative majority has now ruled that "corporate speech" deserves the same protections as the speech of citizens. It has once again delivered American politics to the wealthiest among us. Most mainstream media reporting seems to think that since labor unions will also be covered by the decision, that it is somehow even handed. Hello? Which labor union is it that has the cash to compete with the insurance industry?

What's next? The minimum wage? (Cuts into profits, you know.) The Clean Air Act? (Ditto--pollution control costs money.) Progressive taxation--what's left of it? (Violation of the 14th Amendment.) If you thought the health care bill coddled the insurance and pharmaceutical companies in its current forms--look out. If Massachusetts didn't do the trick, watch the rest of the moderate Democrats head for corporate patronage.

It took mass movements of working people and their allies to begin to rein in corporations in the early twentieth century. I think it's going to take something similar now. Let's start with the banks.


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