Cashing in on free speech

Americans have a lot to be proud of as we forge ahead in the 21st century. We owe it to ourselves to try to ignore the economy and our future job prospects for a moment and appreciate some of the good that has been nurtured here: our stunning national parks, the Internet, the pretty commendable job most everybody does of navigating those crowded streets and maybe even cheeseburgers. But besides these accomplishments, there is one achievement that is something remarkable all on its own — our nation’s historically increasing acceptance and integration of diversity.

It hasn’t been easy but more and more, minorities and historically oppressed groups are gaining traction in the land of opportunity. There is still plenty of work to be done, but the progress made so far is reason to believe that instead of stagnating, diversity in all its forms will be even further embraced.

The most encouraging sign that the incorporation of diversity will continue is found in the most recent addition to our national melting pot. Like all struggles against marginalization, victory for this oppressed group has been a long time coming. Yes finally, thanks to the brazen thinking of the Supreme Court, the dream of corporate personhood has been made a reality. Dr. King must be proud.

In the decision for Citizens United against the Federal Elections Commission, the Supreme Court recognized that campaign finance laws limiting political spending by corporations are an inhibition of freedom of speech. In winning over five of the justices, lawyers for Citizens United pursued a broad interpretation of the First Amendment by making the small theoretical leap that corporations are in fact people, too, and should therefore enjoy the same right of free speech protected by the Constitution.

By accepting corporations as people, the Court has righted a series of past discriminatory rulings and a century of election law that rather obscenely differentiated between human speech and corporate speech. By eliminating Congress’s long-held ban on corporations’ and unions’ expenditures on “electioneering” and political commercials, these entities are finally free to express themselves to their hearts’ content. Though, I hope you will forgive my metaphor analogizing a corporation to the human body — it does seem like a bit of a stretch.

There are many in the United States who disagree with the ruling, but change is usually hard. In time, the value of these extra voices will become more apparent as we adjust to corporations becoming more fully integrated into our democracy.

Just think of the exciting possibilities — BP and other oil companies can finally buy those TV ad spots for their favorite anti-oversight political candidates. JPMorgan Chase is now free to dip into its immense general fund to pay for as much airtime as it can to ensure pro-Glass-Steagall candidates never make it into office. Defense contractors can purchase all the commercials for Dick “the hawk” warmongers that money can buy. And pharmaceutical companies get to enjoy the full free speech rights Thomas Jefferson and friends envisioned by buying up ad slots for any politician who promises to keep those dirty, cheap Canadian drugs out of the US market.

With so many corporate voices and so much money to make them as loud as financially possible, we might think the victors here are the corporations — but no, the real victor here is democracy, which flourishes when power is appointed to the people. It took a very long time, but the recognition that corporations are people, and that they are entitled to free political speech finally completes the unification of government with the interests of those who can make their voices heard.

While we as a nation at first struggle to adjust to the integration of these newly minted corporate personhoods, there continue to be many objections to this marked change in what is considered acceptable political discourse.

Certain alarmist folk may put forth the argument that corporations can now legally and overtly buy political influence. But political influence has always been up for sale in Washington — there is a whole industry of lobbyists to facilitate the procurement of a senator’s ear. The beauty of Citizens United is that the Supreme Court has eliminated the middleman. Lobbyists inevitably drive up prices, and a more efficient marketplace for political influence can only result in the money corporations save being passed on to us, the consumer! Better get in line to cash in on the imminent discounts on hedge fund portfolios and tomahawk missiles.

The influence of money on legislators in Washington is well known. As the Supreme Court’s perpetual swing vote and writer of the court’s 5-4 majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy responded to the threat of increased corruption by explaining that any danger a torrent of corporate money might bring would be mitigated by the court’s additional mandate (8-1) for “transparency (which) enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

So there it is folks, it all works out — the electorate is actually empowered by the court’s decision because we are now privy to know exactly which corporations are propping up political candidates. Citizens United actually simplifies the voting process — if you don’t like big oil, now you know who not to vote for. Alarmists be damned, the Supreme Court has thought of everything.

Well, almost.

After the Citizens United ruling, 501(c)(4) non-profit organizations became the preferred conduit for corporate electioneering. The court’s disclosure mandate did not apply to these organizations and undisclosed contributions to 501(c)(4)s skyrocketed in 2010 midterm elections. Oh, well.

Still though, another victory for “freedom.”