Citizens United must go

Americans need to pressure presidential candidates on changing the ruling

The GOP’s presidential hopefuls will battle it out tonight (Thursday, Aug. 6) in the first of the debates, meaning the run for the White House has begun in earnest. On the one hand, we find it a little disturbing that this is happening so early in the game. The Iowa caucuses aren’t until February of next year. On the other hand, the long lead-up presents opportunities for regular people—lots of us—to actually have an impact on some of the issues that will define candidates and our country’s future.

There is one issue, though, where we think the vast majority of citizens stand in like-minded opposition, while Congress—despite its responsibility to achieve the will of the American people—has shown a willingness to subvert that will and American democracy. The issue we’re talking about is the decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court back in 2010 called Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission.

That’s the case in which the court held that the government could not restrict election expenditures by corporations, essentially saying that money is speech, and therefore protected by the First Amendment. (We actually agree that money is speech. That’s not our problem with the decision.) This is also the case where the high court bestowed corporations with “personhood,” with many of the same rights as human beings.

Members of Congress have sat on their hands these past five years claiming the only way to overcome this heinous bench legislation is with a constitutional amendment—an almost impossible hurdle. It’s a “straw man” argument, and it’s made because members of Congress are the primary beneficiaries of the hundreds of millions of dollars that have poured into elections from corporations.

But corporations are not people. For one, they are immortal, and giving them the ability to influence elections forever undermines the natural growth of a democracy. For example, the cultural view of slavery changed over the course of a single human lifetime in this country. Secondly, corporations often have more money than almost any individual could ever hope to attain. The rule enables America to become the actual oligarchy-by-corporation Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson wrote against, instead of just the de facto oligarchy that can be overcome by sustained grassroots efforts.

But the Supreme Court has specifically enabled Congress to make laws to prevent certain types of speech from undermining the law, and the way to attack Citizens United is not to attempt to undermine the First Amendment aspect of money being speech, but instead to make it clear in law that corporations are not people, and as nonpersons, they have no legal expectations of First Amendment rights.

Both the major parties have proponents of the idea of breaking the hold that corporate money has taken on American elections, politicians and government. We must ask candidates how they expect to change the Supreme Court’s anti-democratic ruling, and then vote with this issue at the top of our minds. Until corporate influence can be removed from our democratic process, our country will continue to stumble on issues like climate change, health care and financial regulation.