Friday, January 22, 2010

Supreme Court Decision on Campaign Finance an Outrage

Yesterday, the Supreme Court overturned critical campaign finance laws regulating political campaign contributions from corporations. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, the brainchild of Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), had limited how much corporations could spend on political campaign advertising and imposed other restrictions specific to the final days of a campaign. Other campaign finance laws going back nearly a century had already limited the ability of corporations to directly fund election campaigns. Yesterday's decision, however, will allow massive amounts of corporate and labor union money to flood the electoral process all over the country, drowning out the voice of the people.

Somewhere, the ghost of Alexander Hamilton is laughing.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that placing restrictions on political campaign spending by corporations represents a violation on free speech. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Natural rights such as the right to free speech are possessed by human beings, not artificial entities like corporations. A corporation has no more an inherent right to donate to a political campaign than does a puddle of water.

The idea of corporate personhood is an insidious legal concept that should be rejected with maximum prejudice. After all, can the entity known as "Bank of America" or "Walmart" walk into a county courthouse and register to vote?

If the executives of a corporation want to donate their own money to a political campaign, they are as free to do so as any other citizen. But they have no moral right, and should have no legal right, to rob the company coffers of shareholder money and funnel it to political candidates their shareholders may or may not support. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous on the face of it. The same, by the way, is true of labor union bosses using the funds of the union members.

Beyond the abstract outrages inherent in this court decision, its practical impact is likely to be extremely damaging to American democracy. Without any restrictions, corporations will be able to use their gargantuan financial weight to flood the airwaves and mail boxes with virtually unlimited advertisements attacking or supporting political candidates. If the past is any guide, these ads will be mere twenty-second soundbites designed to create false caricatures, utterly devoid of any meaningful content. The grassroots efforts of ordinary citizens, the true currency of genuine democracy, simply won't be able to compete.

Genuine democracy can only function when all viewpoints have a roughly equal opportunity for expression, and that requires the playing field to be as level as possible. If the financial power of the corporations is allowed to sweep away the words of ordinary citizens, then our elections are no better than the sham elections held by tin-pot dictatorships all over the world, in which the ruling party's control of the media ensures that the people hear only good things about the incumbents and only bad things about the challengers.

This decision is terrible news, and unfortunately not likely to be overturned anytime soon. It is yet more evidence of the critical need for fundamental reforms of the American electoral system on all levels. We need public financing of elections to ensure a more level playing field, we need redistricting reform to prevent partisan gerrymandering, and we need many other reforms.

We can only hope that there will be enough people of common sense and a commonwealth interest among our elected leaders to help bring this about.

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