Wanted: Presidential Backbone

Here's some 2010 midterm election commentary ripped straight from the headlines -- of 1886.

As we all know by now, the story of the 2010 campaign season was the torrent of secret, unaccountable corporate cash used to saturate the airwaves with false, or nearly false, pro-Republican advertising. I live in an upper South border region, prime natural habitat for Blue Dog Dems, and here the commercials aimed at southern Indiana's Baron Hill and central Kentucky's Ben Chandler rendered even the World Series almost unwatchable.

Overall campaign spending made 2010 the third most expensive election ever, behind 2004 and 2008. Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonprofit Democracy 21, told Politico that about $200 million was being spent by outside groups that did not disclose the sources of their money.

It is generally acknowledged that the deluge of midterm campaign cash was unleashed by a conveniently timed January 2010 Supreme Court ruling, in the Citizens United case, which enshrined corporations' right to spend money in political campaigns as an essential First Amendment protection. Adding his voice to the majority in that case, Justice Antonin Scalia gushed, "To exclude or impede corporate speech is to muzzle the principal agents of the modern free economy. We should celebrate rather than condemn the addition of this speech to the public debate."

Slate magazine's legal correspondent, Dalia Lithwick, cleverly dubbed Citizens United "The Pinocchio Project" because it sought to turn an artificial corporation into a real boy. But the Pinocchio Project has been going on for a long time. In fact it goes back to -- you guessed it -- 1886.

That was the year when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad. It was a property tax dispute in which, among other things, the railroad challenged the county's right to assess corporate-owned land by a different standard than that used for privately owned land. And it became the precedent for the claim that corporations are persons, entitled by the 14th Amendment, with equal protection under the law, protections equal even to those afforded the recently freed slaves for whom that amendment was actually written.

This notion that corporations are persons, with all the same rights as real human persons, has poisoned American politics and culture ever since. It's been used to thwart limits on commercial advertising. It has twisted copyright laws, intended to benefit artists, to give the likes of Disney and the big record companies a stranglehold on our common heritage. And now it allows big business to buy our elections.

Corporate personhood is, of course, a pernicious, and even blasphemous, fiction. Corporations don't have to breathe the air or drink the water. They don't have to raise the next generation. They operate at the moral level of sharks. They eat and swim, with profit as their only drive. Williams Jennings Bryan knew all this in 1912, when he thundered:

Man [sic] is the handiwork of God and was placed upon earth to carry out a Divine purpose; the corporation is the handiwork of man and created to carry out a money-making policy ... Man acts under the restraints of conscience, and is influenced also by a belief in a future life. A corporation has no soul and cares nothing about the hereafter.

During Franklin Roosevelt's first term in office, the Supreme Court opposed many of the measures the president felt were needed to lift the country out of the Great Depression. Roosevelt didn't whine or opine. Instead he tried to pack the court. He failed, but he got the justices' attention. We could use some of that presidential spunk and backbone now.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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