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Sunday, July 12, 2009
Corporate America, Corporatizing America
Posted by Austin Cline
There's a case about to be argued before the Supreme Court - for a second time, which is significant - which has the potential of substantially rewriting the very nature of the American political system. I recognize that there many cases every year which seem to be like this because it is, after all, the Supreme Court. This case, however, is potentially much worse than most: what if American corporations were permitted to donate money directly to political candidates, bound only by the restrictions already in place for individuals or perhaps without any restrictions at all?
Strange Behavior at the Supreme Court
No one saw this case coming because this isn't an issue that the Supreme Court was ever supposed to rule on. The justices were supposed to rule narrowly on whether a book about Hillary Clinton qualified as a corporate-funded political message that had to be held back until after an election or if it were just another book that could be published like any other.
Instead, the Court took the highly unusual move of holding the case over and having the lawyers come back in to make entirely new arguments — not arguments over whether the book constitutes political advocacy, but over whether the Supreme Court should overturn the 1990 decision which established the precedent that political advocacy by corporations could be restricted in the first place.
What's more, the Court insisted that the new arguments be made quickly, even before the next term starts. This gives little time for the lawyers to prepare or for advocacy groups to submit their own briefs. It almost seems as if the justices involved have already reached at least a preliminary decision and are rushing the process so that a final verdict can be handed down before others have a chance to sway them — or realize what's going on.
Corporate Sponsored Politicians
Perhaps this doesn't sound like it's necessarily a major change from what we have now. After all, don't industries and corporations already practically buy politicians on a regular basis? In fact, one might even suspect that a change might be good: currently the layers (lobbying groups, political action committees) between politicians and corporations makes it harder to tie votes to donated money, so allowing more direct donations will also allow citizens to see more clearly the connection between donated money and paid-for voting.
As cynical as that is, it's hard not to be sympathetic; but if allowed to get a foothold this sort of system would make American politics far more corrupt than it already is. Politicians would know that the more money they divert to corporations — not just general industries or industrial sectors, but specific corporations — whether directly as in bailouts or indirectly as in tax breaks, the more they may be able to receive directly back in campaign donations.
Banks receiving billions in bailouts could donate hundreds of thousands to the politicians who voted for bailouts to ensure they stay in office. A coal company that's allowed to destroy mountains in Appalachia could donate massive amounts of money directly to sympathetic politicians to keep them in office. Health insurance corporations could give hundreds of thousands directly to politicians on both the state and federal level to ensure that the people never benefit from a just, fair, and reasonably priced health care system.
Stressing and Changing the System
The only potential upside to such a situation is a step beyond the cynicism mentioned above: if the system becomes obviously corrupt enough, perhaps that will inspire enough people to want enough change that there will be real support for fundamental reform of the system. It's a sad fact that people tend to be scared of big changes, so no matter how corrupt and unjust a system is, many will tend to accept it just so long as the corruption isn't too obvious and the injustice doesn't become too personally invasive.
So people are more willing to support change when the system itself collapses, appears to be on the verge of collapse, or becomes so riddled with corruption that the risk of change becomes less than the risk of staying put. That isn't currently the case with campaign financing. Plenty of people recognize that there are serious problems with campaign financing in American politics and recognize that money is a hugely corrupting factor, but they are unable to do anything more than nibble at the edges without affecting the fundamental problems.
There are currently too many people with a vested interest in keeping things just the way they are and not enough support for significant reform among the voters. If the Supreme Court actually goes so far as to hand corporations the golden key to political financing, though, that might be enough to tip things in favor of corruption and thus also towards real reform — though, I fear, it will take a while for that momentum to build up sufficiently. In the interim, we'll suffer through a lot more corruption, a lot more bad laws, and a lot more infringements on our rights as free citizens.
Changing the Supreme Court
One interesting thought is how such a ruling might impact the Supreme Court itself. It would be easy to direct a bit of voter anger towards the Supreme Court and portray the justices voting in favor of corporate-funded politicians as renegades, radicals, and untrustworthy. Combined with already-existing arguments for reforming the Supreme Court and we could see significant changes there as well, like term limits or more justices.
The last time politics entered the Supreme Court in such a way, it was more threat than reality. President Roosevelt was able to threaten the Court with additional justices and thereby got them to stop blocking his economic reforms. This time, though, it would probably be too late for threats because the damage would already be done and the Court wouldn't be able to reverse that damage before they have consequences imposed on them.
Interest in reforming the Supreme Court is even lower currently than interest in reforming campaign financing, so this could make the Court itself the only force capable of making its own reform a realistic possibility.
at 7:30 AM