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The Story of Citizens United

Why Democracy Only Works When People Are in Charge

by Annie Leonard

Aren’t you tired of this stuff? Why is it that every election season, it becomes impossible to hear the facts over all the misleading ads? And if it seems the problem is only getting worse, that’s because it is. We can thank the Supreme Court for that. In 2010, they decided that it’d be just fine for corporations to spend as much money as they want telling us who to vote for.

Wait, why are corporations telling us who to vote for? Let’s get something straight. This is a democracy, you know rule by the people? I’m a person. You’re a person. And Chevron? Not a person. So shouldn’t elections be all about what people want? Good Jobs. Safe products. Healthcare. Responsible Government. Clean air and water. It turns out that the vast majority of Americans want to see a lot more done on all of these things.

But what people want will take a backseat as long as corporations can spend millions getting lawmakers elected. Oil companies have gotten politicians to block laws protecting our climate. Manufacturers have pushed through trade agreements that gut product safety and help ship jobs overseas. Insurance companies have been the first ones consulted on health reform and giant corporations have gotten bail-outs and subsidies.

Maybe that’s why all kinds of people - Republicans, Democrats, independents -- are totally frustrated with our government. It’s easy to get angry. But it’s time we got smart and realize that the heart of our problem is not that we have bad lawmakers. We have a democracy in crisis. 85% of Americans feel that corporations have too much power in our democracy and people have too little. 85 percent! Hey, that’s a majority. So let’s get together and take our democracy back from corporations. It’s the first and most important step in making real progress on all the issues people care most about. So how did “we the people” lose control of our democracy to begin with? Let’s go back a few centuries.

Back then there were just people. Some of them owned businesses. Some of them worked for businesses. Still, there were just people.

Then people invented something entirely new -- the corporation. These legal entities exist independently of the people who own them. If a corporation does something that gets it into trouble, the owners can say, don’t blame me, blame the corporation. I’m just a shareholder! When the United States came into existence, corporations were easier to keep in check. Back then, the government would grant them charters for a specific short-term project, like building a bridge or a railroad.

Once they fulfilled their purpose, they were disbanded. But over time, the law changed and corporations no longer had to be turned off once their project was complete. They began to live on indefinitely, with a much more general purpose, profit. And that’s how the modern corporation was born. Today’s corporations have evolved to have something very dangerous in their programming. Unlike people, who are driven by all kinds of motivations -- doing the right thing, love for family, their country, the planet -- publicly traded corporations are now required, by law and the markets, to pursue one single motivation above all others: Maximize value for shareholders -- make as much money as possible.

That’s it. No, really, that’s what the law and the markets demand. Imagine a friend saying, “The only thing I really care about is money.” Not someone you’d want to leave your kids with, or your democracy for that matter. Yes, it is people who run these corporations but their human motivations come second. If they prioritize anything at all over maximizing profits, they’re out of there. Can corporate leaders do good things like give to charity or try to be more green? Sure. But not if it conflicts with maximum profits.

[/column] [column width="48%" padding="0"]And since their humble beginnings, corporations have grown huge. 53 of the 100 biggest economies on earth are now corporations.

So corporations have a single-minded profit motive. They’re humongous. And their owners can easily dodge the blame for any harm they cause. That makes them tricky to share a country with. If we want them to serve us and not the other way around, they need some basic ground rules. And that’s where the government comes in, setting rules to keep things fair and safe and to protect society from corporations run amok. Now if their main objective is to maximize profit, do you think corporations are content to follow rules that keep them in check? No, of course not. They want to write those rules. But who is supposed to write the rules in a democracy? People.

That’s why one of the corporations’ key strategies for sneaking into our democracy is saying they should have the same First Amendment rights as real, live people. And that’s exactly how they won that 2010 Supreme Court case known as Citizens United vs. FEC.

In that case, five members of the Supreme Court decided that it’s unconstitutional to put any limits on how much money corporations can spend influencing elections. Why? They said these limits violate the first amendment guaranteeing free speech. Obviously our founding fathers who wrote the first amendment were trying to protect the free speech of people. But this decision rides on the crazy argument that corporations should be treated the same as people and should get the same rights real people get!

This means corporations can spend as much as they want, whenever they want to intimidate or crush candidates running on a platform against their interests and support candidates who will do what they ask. Great news for corporations wanting to handpick the lawmakers whose job it is to keep them in check. Now, I’m all for free speech! If every shareholder and employee at Exxon wants to personally support some oil lobbyist running for Senate, it’s their right. There are millions more people who will support a different candidate. That’s democracy in action!

But now Exxon or any other corporation can decide to spend unlimited dollars from its huge corporate coffers to influence an election, without even consulting its shareholders. This is a big deal. If the top 100 corporations decided to throw in just 1% of their profits, they could outspend every candidate for President, House and Senate combined! Good luck having your free speech heard over that!

So did opening the floodgates on this money actually cause a flood? Sure did. In 2010, the kind of “independent” groups that corporations are now allowed to support spent $300 million. That’s more than every midterm election since 1990 combined! So corporations are drowning out our voices, getting what they want and our democracy is in trouble. But we can totally save it! People are so outraged by the Supreme Court decision that a massive response is mobilizing. Such a huge problem requires a huge solution and we’ve got one, a new constitutional amendment.

The amendment is smart and clear. It reverses this disaster to our democracy by clarifying that the first amendment isn’t meant for for-profit corporations. I get that amending the constitution is a big, ambitious goal. But it’s not impossible. Every time huge positive change has been made in this country, it’s because people dreamed big, aimed high, and set ambitious goals. It’s time to do that now, because the life of our democracy is on the line.

Public financing of campaigns would be another huge step forward. Congress is working on a bill right now that would make it possible for candidates to get elected without corporate dollars. Remember, 85% of Americans think that corporations have too much influence in our democracy. That’s enough to make change, if we can turn that sentiment into action. Look, the corporations won’t get out of our democracy until we, the people, get back in.

So keep fighting for renewable energy, green jobs, health care, safe products and top-notch public education. But save some energy for the battle of our lifetimes --A battle that can open the door to solving all of these things. It’s time to put corporations back in their place and to put people back in charge of our democracy. [/column][end_columns]

1 comment

  1. Stephanie 9 October, 2012 at 21:37 Reply

    THANKS!! for turning me on to StoryofStuff.org. I googled Annie Leonard and came across all her wonderful short films. I’m actually using one of the films  to teach my kids about recycling, they are 3 and 5 so I hope they get it , the animations sure help and are really wonderful. Great articles (as always!)

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