Lang Waters: Corporations are not people

June 4, 2017
Lang Waters

In November of last year Californians passed "The California Overturn of Citizens United Act Advisory Question," known as Proposition 59.

This proposition advises California's elected officials to use their authority to overturn the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling of the Supreme Court. Fair elections are everyone's concern and the nature of the Supreme Court Citizens United decision is such that it corrupts our political process. It is important to send a message that corporations are not people and that they do not deserve the First Amendment rights of citizens.

The majority opinion of Citizens United relies ultimately and primarily upon the idea that the First Amendment bars regulatory distinctions based on the identity of the speaker, including its "identity" as a corporation. To paraphrase Justice Stevens in the dissenting opinion, this is nonsense, and it does not square with more than 100 years of election law whatsoever. The court overstepped the scope of the decision to overturn established election law simply because it had the will to do so. By ignoring established case law the court denies the differences between for-profit corporate speech and human beings.

At the founding of this nation corporate business entities were somewhat new and, because their power to do harm to society was recognized, highly regulated. It used to be the case that corporations had to petition Congress and receive a special charter which detailed the parameters of operation before they could even legally exist. There is a relevant chapter early in our history about corporate corruption of the political process — the Bank War of Andrew Jackson's presidency. The Bank War refers to the political struggle that was fought over the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States. This was a private bank with public duties that was considered by many to have overstepped its purview and to threaten the sovereignty of states and citizens.

While there are multiple aspects to the Bank War the key points here are 1.) it is an example of one of the first powerful private corporations in the U.S. and 2.) the threat that it posed to our democracy played a significant role in the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Here's an excerpt from Jackson's annual message to Congress on Dec. 3, 1833, where he indicts the bank for political overreach and threatens to destroy it by not renewing its charter: "In this point of the case the question is distinctly presented whether the people of the United States are to govern through representatives chosen by their unbiased suffrages or whether the money and power of a great corporation are to be secretly exerted to influence their judgment and control their decisions." That is, should we allow corporations to influence elections? Jackson ultimately won and the Second Bank of the United States liquidated in 1841.

Concern about corporate power over the political process was present at the founding. Thomas Jefferson famously worried about the threat of moneyed, for profit corporate interests to the nation, and while he was not able to get protection in the Bill of Rights against big business (he tried) he continued to express his fears of an aristocracy of wealth that would tyrannize the population in letters to John Adams and others. In a letter to George Logain in 1816 he writes that the "vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of '76 now look to a single and splendid government of an Aristocracy, founded on banking institutions and monied in corporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry."

Our nation and our law has long recognized that corporate interests represent something distinctly different from the interest of common citizens. The identity of the speaker matters, and corporate interests do not deserve First Amendment protection.

The impact of the Citizens United decision is huge — since 2010 "outsider" spending has climbed from just over $300 million in 2010 to more than $1.4 billion in 2016 as a direct result.

Corporate interests aren't your interests. We should not cede our political power as individuals to corporate interests that drown out all other speech and corrupt our political process. Corporations are not people. It's important to continue to ask our members of Congress to support HJR 48, the "We The People" amendment that is currently stalled in a House of Representatives committee.

Lang Waters lives in Nevada City.

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