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.
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.
# # #