Across the nation, the question resounds: “Are corporations people?” To a man of strict political principles this is obviously a yes or no question. But I’ve never been afflicted with anything resembling political principles, so I must resort to facts.
The court case which introduced the idea of “corporate personhood” to the general public was 2010’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. It basically said that corporations have the same free-speech rights as human beings, which somehow got mangled into the false “corporations are people” meme.
The McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 had limited “soft money” spent by organizations to within 60 days of an election or 30 days of a primary. “Soft money” is that which is donated to non-candidates who may take a stand on an issue relating to someone’s candidacy. “Hard money” donated to politicians has been regulated longer than there has been a Federal Election Commission (FEC). Campaign finance has been an issue in America since 1883 at least, and it was considered problematic before then.
McCain-Feingold’s purpose was to limit large contributions to political parties, which allowed big donors to bypass “hard money” limits already set by law. This gave rise to the 527 corporation, an IRS-designated tax-free political corporation which is not a political party or an FEC-registered political action committee. These have been around for years but became more popular immediately after McCain-Feingold passed. Some are right-wing, most famously Citizens United and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Some are left-wing: MoveOn.org (until 2008) or the Service Employees Union. There are complex rules about how a 527 may take donations and how they spend money to avoid fines or loss of their tax-free status. There are also non-527 political-advocacy corporations: the NRA and the NAACP, for example. Are the NRA and NAACP people?
Citizens United produced a film about Hillary Clinton. They did this within a period of time covered by the McCain-Feingold Act for primaries, presumably because they preferred Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton. The film itself wasn’t considered campaign advertising; we haven’t yet reached the level of insanity where films are monitored for political content. It was the ads for the film which were considered campaign advertising. Ironically, Citizens United had complained about the ads for Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 back in the 2004 election under the same rule, and the FEC ignored the complaint. Michael Moore is not a corporation, though he weighs more than many of them.
The Supreme Court decided that the ads for Citizens United’s propaganda film about Hillary Clinton were constitutionally protected political speech. If a non-527 organization such as Michael Moore had done this as he did in 2004, it wouldn’t have mattered. Media outlets can be purchased by anyone. Let’s say the Washington Post, CNN, or Michael Moore supported Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008. Does any law limit the amount of money they spend supporting Barack Obama in their newspaper, TV station, website, or movie studio? There are no such laws; the First Amendment explicitly protects journalism and media advocacy. Media outlets can blather and editorialize all they like, whenever they like. They aren’t even required to make a profit: Many of them do not and are subsidized by wealthy patrons who presumably throw their money at such ventures to influence elections. McCain-Feingold explicitly allowed for such “media outlets” to editorialize all they like. The Supreme Court decision gives some of this vast power to 527 corporations, other corporations, and unions. The result is you don’t have to own The New York Times to influence an election; you can contribute to a corporation or a union which will buy an ad for you.
Imagine for a moment what the world would be like if the Supreme Court voted the other way. As far as I can tell, the result would be a slight increase in the mass media’s power and a slight decrease in that of political activists, unions, and corporations. Nothing else would change appreciably. Vast sums would still be spent on political campaigns. Lobbyists and unsavory political-pressure groups would still have tremendous influence on the laws passed. Corporations, media elites, and foreign agents would still have preposterous amounts of control over American policy. Thoughtful critics of the Citizens United decision agree.
Unfortunately, most in the media (the party who lost this decision, ultimately) have distorted the problem down to a mindless soundbite: “Are corporations people?” I don’t think corporations are actual or legal people, nor does anyone else with a lick of sense. If corporations were people, Google and Microsoft owe a lot of back taxes, and they need to build a prison big enough to house MF Global. If there was ever a corporation which represented people, Citizens United would certainly qualify, as would the Service Employees Union. I think the SEU and Citizens United represent people better than CNN or The Wall Street Journal do. I also think groups such as the SEU and Citizens United have considerably less power than mass-media outlets, even after the Supreme Court decision.
This decision should cause thoughtful citizens to pause and think about how modern political sausage gets made. It should get people scratching their heads about the byzantine legal regulations involved in an election, as well as the wretched and disgusting ways in which powerful interests and political activists manipulate them. It should inspire folks to think about the centers of power in our society and how the media has deceived us about its own power and interests in this issue. Instead, we are distracted with red-herring phrases about whether or not Google is someone I can punch in the throat.
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