It happened today.
The Supreme Court, in response to an obscure case related to campaign finance law, ruled that under the First Amendment, corporations have the right to spend UNLIMITED MONEY to influence elections.
Now, I've known vaguely that the ruling in this case was coming. And I assumed that the conservative Roberts Court would take the opportunity to strip away some aspect of campaign finance law. But, oh my God, this opens the floodgates. The 5 - 4 ruling (*Can you guess who was on which side? Find the answer at the bottom) overturns about a century of precedent that the government has the right to limit corporate money in elections. The ruling essentially enshrines the reactionary idea that corporations have the same rights as people and that political spending is free speech.
So you have the right to contribute $50, write a letter to the editor of your local paper, and volunteer down at the local campaign office in support of you favorite candidate. And now ConocoPhillips has the right to launch a billion dollar campaign for its favorite candidate.
Remember when conservatives railed against "activist" judges? Well, what do you call these judges?
This is a kick in the gut to anyone who still cares about the increasingly antiquated idea of representative democracy. I'm still trying to catch my breath. This ruling makes elections a joke. It changes everything. And it's not just that corporations will be able to run the only election campaigns that matter. The ruling implies that even more limits on corporate and super-rich political spending will be removed.
The court's ruling says that corporations must be allowed unlimited spending in support of a political candidate. The ruling did not touch existing laws that prohibit a corporation from donating directly to a candidate. Catch that? So Wal-Mart can now run the biggest parallel, shadow campaign that you've ever seen in support of its candidate, but it can't donate directly to the candidate's campaign. Not that the distinction matters much at this point. But if corporations are people, and political donations are "free speech," on what basis do any limits on corporate political spending stand? The Roberts Court basically says, No basis at all. And on what basis can the government limit a billionaire's "free speech" if he wants to donate, oh, just a billion to his favorite candidate?
To be sure, the people's opposition to this corporate power grab is rising to its feet. But like any mass popular movement, it's going to be sloooow. A coalition of public interest organizations has already thrown together a site called FreeSpeechforPeople.org and a YouTube video:
One of the best lines from the video puts the situation in perspective:
"In 2008 the Fortune 100 corporations had $600 billion in profits. Now imagine that those top 100 companies decided to spend a modest 1 percent of their profits to intervene in our politics and to get their way. That would mean $6 billion... or double what the Obama campaign spent, the McCain campaign spent, and every candidate for House and Senate [in 2008]."
So all the usual rag-tag democracy-defending organizations are going to rise up against this. But we've also got friends in high places. The White House and Congressional Democrats have been quick to say that they won't let this decision go unanswered. But with the Senate unable to do anything important these days, it's hard to see how Congress is going to do much of anything about this.
On a final note, maybe you, reader, still think of yourself as a "moderate" and you generally say things like, "Oh, I dunno. Democrats are good on some things, and Republicans are good on some things. It probably evens out." Well, this moment provides a crystal clear contrast between the core values of the two major parties. Take a look at what leaders from each party are saying, and ask yourself if there really is a "middle ground" here.
Here is Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:
"For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process. With today's monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups by ruling that the Constitution protects their right to express themselves about political candidates and issues up until Election Day."
Yes, Mitch, for too long corporations have been deprived of their rights by the little people with their pesky laws!
And here is Democratic President Barack Obama:
"With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans. This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington--while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates. That's why I am instructing my Administration to get to work immediately with Congress on this issue. We are going to talk with bipartisan Congressional leaders to develop a forceful response to this decision. The public interest requires nothing less."
Hey, if he keeps talking like that, in 2012 he'll face a Republican opponent with a $500 billion campaign!
*Answer: Roberts (Republican-appointed), Alito (R-appointed), Scalia (R-appointed), Thomas (R-appointed), and Kennedy (R-appointed) in majority opinion for corporatocracy. Stevens (R-appointed), Breyer (D-appointed), Ginsburg (D-appointed), Sotomayor (D-appointed) in minority opinion for democracy.