37. Yes, We’re Rome (V)

In prior postings, I’ve noted – and deplored – the threat to American democracy arising from two developments:  (1) the growing concentration of wealth in our society and (2) the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have freed the owners of this wealth, along with the managers of the corporate sector, from any effective limits on how they expend their resources to influence the political process.

I’m now going to speak to any of my readers who may be inclined to make light of this situation.  It’s pretty obvious that conservative politicians will be the immediate beneficiaries of this state of affairs, and grass-roots right-wingers might be tempted to applaud it.  If so, they should think again.

In the United States, we’ve gone out of our way to avoid the undue centralization of political power – that’s the point of our federal system – and we’ve also been careful to limit and constrain the powers that’ve been granted.  Conservatives can recognize the perils involved in the concentration of unfettered governmental authority, but for some reason they’ve trouble appreciating the equal or greater danger that comes from having too much unrestricted economic clout in the hands of a tiny elite.

For your information, here and here are recent articles on this.

It’s instructive to analyze the Supreme Court’s notorious Citizens United decision from the standpoint of a Burkean conservative.  I admit I’m not exactly one of those, but I’ve read Burke, and I know he makes some good points that apply here.  Above all else, he was a pragmatist.  The ruling theme of his great work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, is the extreme unwisdom of radical change on the basis of an abstract ideology, with no reference to concrete circumstances.  He argues, in general, that nations should be very slow to discard their established procedures, which may be bound up with the health of their societies in ways that aren’t immediately apparent.

Conservatives like to apply Burke’s wisdom to issues like same-sex marriage, but how does Citizens United stack up by this measure?

This 2010 ruling struck down federal laws dating back over a century, that made it illegal for corporations to spend money for electioneering purposes – advocating the election or defeat of a candidate for federal office.  These laws recognized that, whereas political donations by private individuals come out of that individual’s personal bank account, corporate donations will be taken out of the company’s treasury.  Thus, when a corporate board of directors decides to make a political contribution, they’re spending other people’s money, which means they’ll spend more freely, and perhaps in ways that their stockholders wouldn’t approve.

The real kicker is that the resources of the corporate sector dwarf anything that even the richest individuals can bring to bear on the political process.  I’ve quoted the statistics before:  the eighteen largest American corporations together account for over one-third of our national wealth.  And since the better-funded candidate wins eighty to ninety percent of our elections, the Citizens United decision has clearly opened the door for ginormous business corporations to take over our politics.

So, what would Mr. Burke think?

For more than a century, campaigns for federal office in the United States were conducted under laws forbidding corporate contributions.  Did these laws achieve their purpose of promoting genuine democracy?  Well, perhaps we can’t say for sure, but our elections are still democratic and free, and these laws were prominent among the rules designed to keep them that way.  In the Citizens United decision, did the Court cite any actual problems stemming from these laws?  Well, no.  Is there any reason to think the corporate viewpoint has been unfairly excluded from political discourse in this country for all these years?  Somehow, I don’t think so.

Yet if these laws serve a good, identifiable goal, and if there isn’t any observable harm from them, what was the basis for striking them down?

Citizens United was a completely ideological decision, devoid of any attention to realities on the ground – in other words, it was the sort of thing Burke most despised.  It can only be rationalized on the basis of abstract symmetry – the idea that corporations, being “persons,” are entitled all the rights belonging to flesh-and-blood human beings.  In truth, corporations are purely artificial entities.  Communities put all kinds of special conditions on them, and don’t have to allow them to exist at all.  They can be permitted for certain purposes, considered socially useful, and restrained from others, considered harmful.  It seems entirely appropriate for communities to stop them from being used to buy elections, but SCOTUS decrees otherwise.

The management, employees, and stockholders of a corporation can contribute to election campaigns as individuals, like the rest of us.  Why should we let them pad their donations by tapping the corporate treasury?

Let’s summarize.  The United States today is operating under a campaign finance regime radically different from the one that existed during almost the whole twentieth century, and that sustained our democratic process during times of profound social and economic change.  Whereas the corporate sector – now dominant in our economy – was then legally precluded from using money to influence elections, there are now no limits on that whatsoever.  This isn’t good.

If you’re a middle-class conservative, and you think big business has your best interests at heart, please wake up.

Blessed be.

# # #

4 thoughts on “37. Yes, We’re Rome (V)”

  1. While I understand the basis of your post, I wonder what you would say about the huge amounts of money that unions and other special interests put into campaigns. Unions are corporations as well afterall. And, while they tend to favor democrats while business corporations tend to favor republicans, is there really any difference? Other than you may agree more with the tenets of the party receiving the larges? Aren’t both sides dragging the country down?

    As we learned in Federalist 51 Madison acknowledged that there would always be factions,and the best defense would be to have many factions. Unfortunately, we have gotten to the point where we really only have two parties and they each cater to various factions. We all have factions we agree with, and those we don’t. Because you don’t agree with business interests and I don’t agree with many union interests doesn’t mean either of them are bad, or that we are bad because we disagree. We simply see things differently.

    1. The answer is complicated, so bear with me. Two points are relevant.
      (1) The financial resources of business corporations far outstrip the resources of unions. The 18 largest American corporations account for 36% of the U.S. economy. Union resources are a pittance by comparison. Therefore, I think business corporations are the main threat to democracy at the present time. If unions somehow amassed an equal amount of wealth, I’d be equally concerned about them. I agree that the same rules concerning campaign contributions should apply to both.
      (2) There’s a huge difference between corporate and individual contributions. When a wealthy “fat cat” donates to a candidate, the money comes out of the individual’s personal bank account and is given in accordance with the individual’s preferences. I don’t like the influence of money in politics, but I agree that — in general — a rich person has the right to spend his/her own money in the way that he/she wants. When a corporate board of directors makes a contribution, however, the money comes out of the corporate treasury, not out of the pockets of the directors. The employees and stockholders of the company, whose work and investments created the company’s wealth, may find said wealth being politically employed in ways they don’t approve. That ain’t fair, in my opinion.
      Unions, remember, can’t do this. Individual union members have the right, courtesy of SCOTUS, to totally opt out of the union’s political activities, and require that their their union dues be spent for something else. Corporate employees and stockholders don’t have an equivalent right. In fact, the rules aren’t the same for both sides.

  2. There’s always hope. The internet does provide a mechanism whereby small donations can add up to a lot. Obama’s presidential campaigns raised more money than any other campaign in history, and most of it was in contributions under $200 from ordinary people. My concern is that the Citizens United decision has now shifted the balance in favor of big money. I’ll say more about this in future postings.

  3. Do we as common citizens with miniscule resources have any recourse? Keep voting? Does it do any good? Where are the candidates that are truly representative? How do we sponsor them to win? The Bernie folks keep e-mailing me as though he is still in the game, is he?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.