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Cutting back the dangerous levels corporate power

We Americans today are frogs, in a slowly heating pot of corporate political power.  It’s time to pay attention. 

Our Constitution provides no role for corporate entities in the governance of America. Why would it? A corporate entity is a legal fiction, with neither morals nor soul. Corporate political power was not even a topic in the Constitutional Debates, nor of the Federalist Papers. The first words of our Declaration of Independence are “We the People.”  Our greatest president in our darkest time declared us a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”  If the Founders could see what has become of us today, they would think we’ve lost our minds.   

Corporate power makes no practical sense in a democracy. A powerful CEO already has more clout than the average citizen. He has a massive paycheck with discretionary income to spend on politics. He has a public megaphone as the leader of a major corporation. He has the ability to ask customers, contractors, clients and employees to support the corporation’s interests. He’s already ahead of the game. There’s no need to allow CEOs to deploy their corporations as vehicles of influence in political life. It’s like giving the biggest, strongest gladiators in the arena armored chariots as well. 

How did this happen? Corporate power in American politics is a relatively recent invention of Republican appointees to the Supreme Court. Justice Lewis Powell opened the gates in a trio of decisions in which he was instrumental. He invented a citizens’ “right to hear” from corporations, which got corporate power into the game; then he unleashed different ways for corporations to spend political money. Chief Justice John Roberts may be the father of the flawed and dishonestly-applied Citizens United decision, but Powell was its grandfather.   Corporate influence at the Supreme Court created corporate power in politics, and then opened the floodgates. 

Mere months before his appointment by Richard Nixon to the Supreme Court, Powell wrote a strategy memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce  He detailed a plan for corporate America to assert power: a national, corporate-funded propaganda campaign; forceful political intervention by intermediary groups like the Chamber; and an organized effort to influence politics through an “activist” judiciary. The Powell report was not disclosed in his Senate confirmation, nor mentioned in his authorized biography. Yet it was the most influential document Powell ever wrote, presaging the propaganda outlet Fox News Channel has become, the flood of corporate political influence we have experienced, and the right wing’s capture of the Supreme Court. 

Runaway corporate power has become so unchained that “outside” campaign spending by influence groups often exceeds the spending of the candidates. Worse, our current Supreme Court allows spending to be anonymous, depriving Americans of basic information to do their job as citizens at election-time. When glimpses appear into this clandestine spending, it tracks back to, in Teddy Roosevelt’s words, “those that wield” the power of “fortunes amassed through corporate organization.”  We are in a dangerous death spiral in America, of corporate power deployed — often covertly — to create more corporate power. In Congress now, the public’s influence is statistically insignificant. Corporate power rules.   

Remember that Americans fought, bled and died to create this republic. Remember that we have held it up for generations as a “City on a Hill.” Remember that president after president, of both parties, has spoken of America as a beacon of democracy. To that noble experiment, corporate power comes as predators come at prey, or scavengers at carrion. A corporate entity can’t feel pride; that’s a human emotion. It responds to the remorseless command of its bottom line, not sentiment or principle. 

People are justifiably furious. Huge corporations refuse to pay their way in taxes, and use Congress to get favored status over people (and CEOs fiddle their own taxes to similar advantage). Other countries’ citizens pay half, or a tenth, of the prices we pay for medicines that were invented here, and Congress stands idly by. Oceans fill with plastic, thanks to an industry that Congress won’t make responsible for its product. We are on a terrifying, reckless descent towards upheaval of basic planetary operating systems, as the fossil fuel industry in Congress blocks our pathway to safety, to wring the last dollars out of its polluting product.  

Neither principle nor practice justify this level of corporate political power. Corporate domination of American politics is a new anomaly. If corporate political power were wielded responsibly, this would merely be an academic concern. Sadly, that’s not the case. Corporations have proven themselves faithless stewards of political power. Greed trumps principle. Corporate power today is a weed that has grown out of control, choking off everything else, and ruining the garden. To preserve this great American experiment, we will need quickly to get out the pruning shears and the weed-whacker, and cut back the dangerous levels of corporate influence with which the Supreme Court and Congress are overgrown. 

A vibrant America still lies beneath the weeds, ready to resume its principles and its example, if we are not too late — or too cowed.    

Sheldon Whitehouse is a member of the Judiciary Committee. 

Tags citizens united corporate power John Roberts Lewis Powell

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