Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Supreme Court and Corporate Free Speech

The Supreme Court and Corporate Free Speech

I have yet to meet anyone who does not deplore the role money plays in elections. Everyone knows that having more money for advertisements, signs, hiring high-priced consultants and a large staff will provide an edge to a candidate. Most people deplore that and therefore support legislation to curb private contributions to electoral campaigns. Limiting corporate campaign contributions seemed appropriate because corporations have a lot more money than even the richest private individuals. The Supreme Court decision abolishing previous limits on corporate campaign contributions raises the level of money that will be spent in elections. It will further raise the cost of elections and thus make it even more impossible to run for public office unless you are wealthy and/or very well connected to people who are.

In addition, many observers fear that business corporations now can use their large financial resources to affect public policy even more than they have in the past. Pro business policies will dominate even more than they have so far.

But, of course, not all the money in elections comes from business. According to the numbers used by conservatives, labor unions have outspent corporations in some recent elections. The Supreme Court decision does not exclusively empower big business. It also gives some support to Big labor. It gives pretty free rein to any group with lots of money.

In a contentious situation, like this one, opposing sides have different facts and it is difficult to know which are most reliable. But the fact that pro-business conservatives are jubilant about this decision, while liberals uniformly execrate it, suggests that most people agree that this decision will enhance the political influence of pro-business groups more than that of any other organization.
This Supreme Court ruling is not about whether corporations are human beings--everyone knows that they are not--or about the free speech rights of corporations. It is not even about the relative power of Democrats or Republicans--both parties are over their ears in private interest money. It is about whether groups that have more money, will, for any political issue, be able impose their perspective to the full extent of their bulging moneybags.

The ultimate victim of the Supreme Court ruling is the traditional conception of democracy. There are different forms of democracy: there is democracy that is a struggle between interest groups. Everyone is out for him or herself; the political process is a struggle for private advantage. The goal is to get your hands into the government piggy bank. Those citizens who do not have the money to be significant players in the political process will remain unrepresented. Their share of government support and resources remains small. To that large class belong children, the working poor, small farmers, small business people, the vast majority of American workers who are not members of any labor union. The spoils go to the moneyed interests and, prominently among them, to global businesses. The banks “too large to fail” receive billions of dollars in bailout money. Homeowners unable to pay their mortgages are still waiting for help from Washington.

But interest group democracy was not what the Founders had in mind. I mentioned in a earlier blog James Madison's chapter in The Federalist where he condemns “factions”--his name for interest group politics. Legislators should try as far as they could make laws to benefit all, not just themselves and people like themselves.

We abandoned this public interest democracy, that is supposed to serve all citizens, a long time ago. The Supreme Court decision will serve to entrench interest group democracy more deeply in our political life. The motto of the people who support the action of the Supreme Court is “more for us.” From now on we will have government by moneyed interests, of moneyed interests, and for moneyed interests.