Democracy for dollars
Where political might is held by a wealthy few and the corporations are just people too
Published: February 1, 2012
The sting of an icy wind and temperatures that dipped into the teens didn't deter a small group of protesters as they marched along the sidewalk across the street from the U.S. District Court in Detroit a few weeks ago.
There are people in their 20s and members of the group that call themselves the Raging Grannies. There's a lawyer and a real estate agent and a woman who does public relations.
What they have in common is the belief that American democracy has been hijacked by special interests with deep, deep pockets.
Dubbed Occupy the Courts, similar protests of varying sizes were taking place across America. The actions coincided with the second anniversary of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has opened the floodgates for political spending on the part of corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.
Along with clearing the way for the attack ads from so-called super PACs (political action committees) that have already played a key role in the run-up to this year's presidential election, that case — Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission — has become the rallying point for a burgeoning movement that seeks to achieve something that has occurred only 27 times in America's history.
What these people marching through the cold and gloom of a Detroit winter's day want to do is amend the U.S. Constitution.
The changes they would make are both deceptively simple and extremely controversial.
In short, what they want the law of the land to say is this:
Corporations aren't people. And money isn't speech.
At this point, you might be thinking, "Isn't that obvious?"
And the answer is: Not to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Beginning in the late 1800s, the court has issued a series of rulings that, in essence, hold that corporations have many of the same inalienable constitutional rights as actual people.
(Ironically, it was the protections provided by the 14th amendment — passed in 1868 to help guarantee the civil rights of recently freed slaves — that lawyers for the railroads pointed to when arguing that they were being unfairly taxed by local municipalities.)
That line of reasoning, coupled with Supreme Court decisions that equate First Amendment free-speech protections to political spending, has sown the seeds for the insurrection that is beginning to foment.
Robert Reich, who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton and is currently a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, summed up the situation this way late last year as various Occupy encampments across the country were being forced to pack up:
"A funny thing happened to the First Amendment on its way to the public forum. It was hijacked. According to the Supreme Court, money is now speech, and corporations are now people.
"Yet when real people without money assemble to express their dissatisfaction with the political consequences of this, they're treated as public nuisances — clubbed, pepper-sprayed, thrown out of public parks and evicted from public spaces."
The dots are there to connect. As wealth is concentrated at the top, the rich are able to spend more and more to help ensure our government is run by politicians who institute policies that primarily benefit the monied interests.
Which is why Detroiter Lou Novak was among the group of protesters taking part in the Occupy the Courts demonstration.
Amending the Constitution, he says, is vital.
"It strikes at the root cause of the problems we are facing," he contends.
Whether the issue is health care or home foreclosures, climate change or the crushing burden of loans facing college students, the bottom line is that corporations are able to protect their own interests while the rest of us are, symbolically, just like these protesters — left out in the cold.
No one — especially those who are pressing the idea of seeking a constitutional amendment — thinks it will be easy.
The Founding Fathers intended it to be incredibly difficult. (See side story about the amendment process and the reasoning behind it.)
As historian Mary Frances Berry observed in a piece she wrote for the New York Times about the failure of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to be ratified during the 1970s and '80s, "change requires two elements: consensus and necessity.
"There must be substantive national agreement, as well as agreement in most of the states, that an urgent problem exists that cannot be remedied by the courts, legislatures or Congress, and which can be solved only if the Constitution is changed."
That, according to activists pushing the issue, is exactly where things stand. Even if it takes years to have an amendment approved by Congress and ratified by the states, they say we've reached the point where something as radical as amending the Constitution is the only course of action open to us.
> Email Curt Guyette