by Ralph Nader
A major chapter in American history – rarely taught in our schools – is how ever larger corporations have moved to game, neutralize and undermine the people’s continual efforts to protect our touted democratic society. It is a fascinating story of the relentless exercise of power conceived or seized by corporations, with the strategic guidance of corporate lawyers.
Start with their birth certificate – the state charters that bring these corporate entities into existence, with limited liability for their investors. In the early 1800s, the Massachusetts legislature chartered many of the textile manufacturing companies. These charters could be renewed on good behavior, because lawmakers then viewed charters as privileges contingent on meeting the broad interests of society.
Fast forward to now. The charter can be granted online in a matter of hours; there are no renewal periods and the job is often given over to a state commission. Over the decades, corporate lobbyists have had either the legislatures or the courts grant them more privileges, immunities and concentration of power in management, rendering shareholders – their owners – increasingly powerless. The same corporate fixers work for corporations and their subsidiaries abroad to help them avoid US laws, taxes and escape disclosures.
Remarkably, the artificial creation called the “corporation” has now achieved almost all of the rights of real people under our “We the People” Constitution that never mentions the words “corporation” or “company.”
Corporations cannot vote, at least not yet; only people can. That was seen as a major lever of democratic power over corporations. So what has happened? Commercial money to politicians started weakening the influence of voters because the politicians became increasingly dependent on the corporate interests that bankrolled their campaigns. The politicians use their ever-increasing corporate cash to saturate voters with deceptive political ads, and intimidate any competitors who have far less money, but may be far better representative of the public good.
To further shatter the principle of voter sovereignty, corporations have rewarded those politicians who construct restrictive political party rules, gerrymander electoral districts and obstruct third party candidate ballot access. By concentrating political power in fewer and fewer hands, corporate influence becomes more deeply entrenched in our democratic society. Politicians quickly learn that political favors will attract more corporate campaign cash and other goodies.
Institutions that are supposed to represent democratic values, such as Congress and state legislatures are meticulously gamed with the daily presence of corporate lawyers and lobbyists to shape the granular performance of these bodies and make sure little is done to defend civic values. These pitchmen are in the daily know about the inner workings of legislative bodies long before the general public. They often know who is going to be nominated for judicial and executive branch positions that interpret and administer the law and whether the nominee will do the bidding of the corporate bosses.
Then there is the press. Thomas Jefferson put great responsibility on the newspapers of his day to safeguard our democracy from excessive commercial power and their runaway political toadies. Certainly, our history has some great examples of the press fulfilling Jefferson’s wish. For the most part, however, any media that is heavily reliant on advertisements will clip its own wings or decide to go with light-hearted entertainment or fluff, rather than dig in the pits of corruption and wrongdoing.
What of the educational institutions that purport to convey facts, the lessons of history and not be beholden to special interests? The corporate state – the autocratic joining of business and government – exerts its influence all the way down to the state and local levels, not just in Washington. It works through boards of education and trustees of colleges and universities, drawing heavily from the business world and its professional servants in such disciplines as law, accounting and engineering.
Moreover, the most influential alumni, in terms of donations, endowments and engagements, come from the business community. They know the kind of alma mater they want to preserve. The law and business schools are of particular interest, if only because they are the recruiting grounds for their companies and firms.
Their subversion even extends to the sacrosanct notion of academic freedom – that these institutions must be independent centers of knowledge. For example, Monsanto, General Motors, Exxon and Eli Lilly are only a few of the companies that have pushed corporate, commercial science over academic, independent science through lucrative consultantships and partnerships with professors.
The unfortunate reality is that the wealthy and powerful are driven to spend the necessary time and energy to accomplish their raison d'etre, which are profits and the relentless pursuit of self-interest. Citizens, on the other hand, have so much else on their minds, just to get through the day and raise their families.
The path forward is to learn from history how citizens, when driven by injustice, organized, raised the banners of change and concentrated on the ways and means to victory. These initiatives require civic self-respect and an understanding that the status quo is demeaning and intolerable.
The requisite to such an awakening is the awareness that our two precious pillars of democracy – freedom of contract and freedom to use the courts – are being destroyed or seriously undermined by corporate influence. The contract servitude of fine-print contracts, signed or clicked on, is the basis of so many of the abuses and rip-offs that Americans are subjected to with such regularity. Add this modern peonage to the corporate campaign to obstruct the people’s full day in court and right of trial by jury guaranteed by our Constitution. The plutocrats have succeeded in gravely doing just that. Tight court budgets, the frequency of jury trials and the number of filed wrongful injury lawsuits keep going down to case levels well under five percent of what the needs for justice require.
Some fundamental questions are: Will we as citizens use our Constitutional authority to reclaim and redirect the power we’ve too broadly delegated to elected officials? Will we hold these officials accountable through a reformed campaign finance system that serves the people over the plutocrats? Will we realize that a better society starts with just a few people in each electoral district and never requires more than one percent of the voters, organized and reflecting public opinion, to make the corporations our servants, not our masters?
See my recent paperback, Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think.