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Why Our Pay to Play System is Destroying Democracy and What We Can Do About It

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Corporations are NOT People and Money is NOT Speech

With the disastrous 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the US Supreme Court consecrated the most wide-ranging and vicious attack on democracy. While the ruling has attracted widespread criticism, even its opponents rarely frame the significance the Supreme Court’s decision and the whole concept of Corporate personhood in general for what it is: the most extreme example of judicial activism in modern history.  The term “judicial activism” is usually associated with liberal justices, who take the position that the constitution evolves over time and terms that were written in the eighteenth century have a different meaning today than they did hundreds of years ago.  Conservatives on the other hand, self-righteously claim that they adhere to the plain meaning of the constitution as it meant at the time it was written, which is why I never understood why liberals always miss the opportunity to point out the hypocrisy as it relates to Citizens United. That pernicious ruling held that (1) corporations are equivalent to flesh and blood human beings with constitutional rights and (2) money is speech.  

In other words, corporations are human beings with First Amendment Rights and restricting political contributions infringes on that corporations right to “speak.”  This argument is ludicrous for so many reasons, the least of which is that there is nothing in the Constitution to support this anti-democratic view of the First Amendment. The term “activist judge” refers to a Court that ignores the clear meaning of the law in order to impose the judge’s preference for what the law ought to be over what it actually is.  Right-wing reactionaries have long argued that Roe v. Wade is an activist ruling because the Constitution does not specifically mention abortion.  However, the Constitution does not identify every possible scenario under which it may be applied. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled that the term “liberty” in the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “Life, liberty, and property,” included a woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body.  Since the term “liberty” is generally synonymous with freedom, it is quite logical to interpret one’s freedom as including the right to choose.  Yet, this hasn’t stopped right-wing reactionaries from accusing pro-choice/pro-democracy activists of supporting “activist” courts. What is disappointing is that progressives don’t counter this argument with the aforementioned logic. Perhaps this is a failing in our education of civics, or maybe it’s the way the issue is framed in the popular press.  

Yet, the very same reactionaries that say there is no basis for Roe, support the preposterous logic of Citizens United.  

Let’s take a closer look at the text of the First Amendment states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

First Question: Can you spot anything the language above that even suggests that money is speech? If not, you are in good company. 

Second question: Can you spot anything in the language above that even suggests that Corporations have a right to “speak?” If not, you are in good company. If the idea that a corporation can speak in the first place seems ludicrous to you, you are in even better company.

So, now that we have established that the activist Citizens United ruling made up two anti-democratic rules of law out of whole cloth, we next have to assess the damage this has done to democracy. 

The Supreme Court has turned the Bill of Rights, which is widely considered as among the greatest pro-democracy documents in the history of human civilization, into a weapon of tyranny. Billionaire and multi-millionaire trust fund babies, can now claim they have an absolute right to bribe politicians and turn elections into outright auctions.  For practical purposes, politicians at all levels of government can only run if they appease wealthy donors.  That doesn’t mean there are zero examples to the contrary. There are a few political leaders in the very small progressive wing of the Democratic Party that rely on small donations and win elections, but they are few and far. In fact, running a campaign without relying on the largess of the donor class is like fighting a boxing match with one hand tied behind your back. Winning is not impossible, it’s just very unlikely.  

That is why attempting to elect leaders that serve the people (as in flesh and blood human beings) CANNOT be accomplished under the Citizens United Regime. The game quite literally is rigged.  The only way to take back our democracy is to educate the public and garner widespread popular support for change.  There are ways of changing the system, including expanding the Court and changing the nomination process, but none of that is happening because there is not enough popular support to do it.  Our thinking is backward to think that we must continue to fight the same way when the game is rigged and one hand is tied behind our backs.  This is why our system continues to destroy the planet and violate human rights with abandon. It is because the interests of an infinitesimal percentage of the population are the only interests being represented because they are the only segment that can pay to play.  We must demand change and this can only be accomplished through education. By educating ourselves and those around us about the realities of our rigged system and what can be done to change it, we might be able to change our system while there is still time. 

Jeff Van Treese II, Esq., Ph.D.  Jeff is the Host of MOBILIZED TV on Free Speech TV. He is also  Professor, Legal Studies (Department Chair) and Environmental Science, Palm Beach State College and Attorney, of Counsel, Zappolo & Farwell, P.A.,  Communications Chair, Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida

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