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Money’s corrupting influence on our politics is evident behind so many news cycles: Mitt Romney’s recent victory in Florida, for example, was a dramatic turnaround from the South Carolina vote a week earlier, but one that may have had a lot more to do with the advertising carpet bombing by Romney-affiliated SuperPACS than a simple matter of old-fashioned politics. You may not care for Newt Gingrich, but his defeat in a race so badly distorted by outside money is an ominous indicator of things to come.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizen’s United vs. the Federal Election Commission certainly didn’t create this problem, but it sure made it a lot worse. Consider: a shocking 72 percent of campaign spending in the 2010 midterms came from secretive groups that were prohibited from spending money in the previous midterm elections. In that election, for the first time in 20 years, outside groups spent more to influence the election than did actual political parties. And the percentage of total election spending from groups that don’t disclose donors has risen from 1 percent in 2006 to 47 percent in the most recent elections.
Citizen’s United is responsible for much of this damage, and it reinforced a poisonous line of thinking: that corporations are, for legal purposes, the same as people. That’s why the Court ruled they could spend in unlimited amounts on elections—since it reasoned that individual people could, why not corporations too? This was an argument rejected by a less-conservative Supreme Court only two years earlier, but Roberts and Alito led this new charge into the wild west of campaign finance.
In his book Corporations Are Not People: The Definitive Guide to Overturning Citizen’s United, Jeffrey Clements lays out a detailed and persuasive indictment of this problem, and offers some solutions, including a constitutional amendment to overturn that decision. The book details in stark terms what Citizen’s United is all about:
Citizen’s United is not merely a mistake easily corrected, nor is the case simply about campaign finance or money in politics. Citizen’s United is a corporate power case masquerading as a free speech case. In many ways, the decision was less a break from the recent past than a proclamation about the sad reality of corporate power in America. The Court’s declaration in Citizen’s United that corporations have the same rights as people might strike most Americans as bizarre. To the five justices in the majority and to the corporate legal movement out of which they have come, however, it was more like a victory lap or an end-zone dance for the three-decade-long campaign for corporate power and corporate rights.
Clements is co-founder of Free Speech for People, and did two stints as assistant attorney general in Massachusetts, fighting tobacco companies, enforcing fair trade, and leading many other battles for consumer and environmental protection. He’s here today to answer your questions, so let’s get rolling!