One of the most astounding passages in the Supreme Court's mind-boggling decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission -- the January decision holding that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend as much as they choose from their treasuries to support or oppose candidates for elected office -- is this:
[T]he Government may commit a constitutional wrong when by law it identifies certain preferred speakers. By taking the right to speak from some and giving it to others, the Government deprives the disadvantaged person or class of the right to use speech to strive to establish worth, standing, and respect for the speaker's voice... The First Amendment protects speech and speaker, and the ideas that flow from each.
This ode to the First Amendment is inspiring, until you recognize that the "disadvantaged class" reference is to corporations.
When it comes to speech protections, there are surely many rational ways to distinguish corporations from real, live persons. One is that corporations are not real, live persons! Another is that for-profit corporations exist for the purpose of making money, and that this monomaniacal focus distinguishes them in very important ways from humans, who care not only about making money, but building community, expressing themselves, fairness, equality, justice, protecting future generations, stewarding the planet and much more. And other consequential difference, compounding these other points of difference, is that large and even not-so-large corporations have a lot more money, and can easily mobilize resources on a scale that vastly outdistances anything that real people can do.
Thus the rather obvious conclusion that corporate money can distort elections and the political process. This is hardly speculative: large corporations dominated the political process even before Citizens United, a fact widely understood. Eighty-five percent of people in the United States believe big business has too much power in Washington.
What may not be quite so obvious is how extraordinary are the resources that corporations can mobilize as against what is now spent on elections.
Consider these juxtapositions --
Total amount spent on federal elections in the 2008 election cycle: $5.285 billion
Amount spent by Obama campaign in the 2008 election: $730 million
Average amount raised by incumbent Members of the House of Representatives in the 2008 election: $1.356 million (challengers: $335,101)
Average amount raised by incumbent Senators in the 2008 election: $8.741 million (challengers: $1,152,146)
Top-selling drug, Lipitor, revenues, 2007-2008: $27 billion
Goldman Sachs bonus and compensation expense for 2009: $16.2 billion
Value of Lockheed's defense contracts in 2008: $15 billion
The amount spent on cigarette advertising and promotion by the five largest cigarette companies in the United States in 2006: $12.49 billion
Microsoft cash on hand: $33.4 billion
And these comparisons, from the states --
Amount spent on candidate races in California state elections, 2008: $225 million
Revenues of the 97th largest corporation in California, Public Storage, 2008: $1.7 billion
Amount spent on candidate races in Ohio state elections, 2008: $107 million
Revenues of the 10th largest corporation in Ohio, Progressive Insurance, 2008: $12.8 billion
Amount spent on candidate races in North Dakota state elections, 2008: $7.3 million
Revenues of the largest corporation in North Dakota, 2008: $5 billion
Amount spent on candidate races in Alabama state elections, 2008: $15.5 million
Revenues of the second largest corporation in Alabama, Vulcan Materials, 2008: $3.6 billion
Amount spent on candidate races in Nebraska state elections, 2008: $6.4 million
Revenues of the 10th largest corporation in Nebraska, Public Storage, 2008: $1.9 billion
Amount spent on candidate races in Rhode Island state elections, 2008: $7.2 million
Revenues of the third largest corporation in Rhode Island, Hasbro, 2008: $4 billion
These comparisons illustrate how easy it will be for one company, one industry, or the corporate class overall, to dominate the electoral discourse in the wake of Citizens United. We won't know how this plays out, of course, until after it happens. Will Exxon alone decide to spend, say, $500 million to oppose or support candidates? Perhaps not -- but the company might, and it certainly could. The mere fact an Exxon could spend that much, or more, will tilt the political process even more in favor of big business. And it is a virtual certainty that targeted corporate spending will escalate sharply in the wake of decision.
Corporations do not establish their "worth" through political and expressive speech, as the Court suggests, but through a different kind of statement altogether -- the financial statement. That fact, combined with their unparalleled treasuries, makes the Court's decision in Citizens United a real and present danger to democracy. It must be overturned.