Corporations aren't made in the image of God—people are.
Five years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations are welcome to the same free speech rights that are allotted to individuals and can therefore spend freely on direct political advocacy.
To those unfamiliar with the topic, Citizens United essentially opened the flood gates for dark money to flow into the Washington electoral circuit. Within the five years since this decision the amount of money spent on political campaigns has steadily increased each election cycle. The most recent midterm elections cost $3.7 billion dollars.
Why should this matter to Christians?
1. Divine dignity is silenced.
The Center for Responsive Politics reported that only “666,773 individuals donated more than $200 to campaigns in the 2014 election cycle." What does this mean? Only 0.2 percent of the population funded the elections. Only the wealthiest Americans, through Super PAC funding and private corporation contributions have influence over the electoral state. The voice of the average American is almost completely silenced because they do not have financial influence. This becomes an issue of morality when we see each citizen as an individual with divine dignity. When the voice of the individual is silenced, the voice of the Divine is also silenced because only the economically elite are heard.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court struck down a law that limited the amount of money that an individual can contribute to political campaigns in a two-year election cycle, while upholding the limit that an individual can give to a single campaign in the same period. Previously, the law limited total individual contributions to all political campaigns to $48,600, while capping individual donations to a single campaign at $2,600.
The bottom line of yesterday's McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling is that there will be more money in politics, as the Court doubles down on the controversial 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that allowed unlimited, anonymous expenditures by outside groups on election activities. Those with resources can now contribute up to $2,600 in all 435 congressional districts, more than 30 Senate races, and the presidential election, while at the same time giving millions more to Super PACs in support of these candidates.
The ruling will give more influence to corporate and labor lobbyists whose groups contribute to political campaigns. It is still illegal to give a donation that explicitly requests a legislative action in return for the contribution. But while politicians spend hours every week making phone calls soliciting contributions, they aren’t likely to forget who is funding their political future. When they hang up the phone and meet a lobbyist in their office whose group is funding their campaign, there is an unspoken understanding that the politician will be more open to the idea that lobbyist is presenting.
Last week marked the fourth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 ruling, the court ruled that corporations are entitled to the same free speech rights as individual humans as guaranteed under the First Amendment.
The political repercussions of Citizens United include the rise of “Super PACs” — political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, independent of direct campaign contributions, to influence politics. The power yielded to such corporations, as well as indiscriminate spending allowance, has deleterious effects upon our democracy.
Because money talks, big money will talk a lot louder, drowning out the voices of average Americans trying to exercise their own civic rights. Politicians are undoubtedly more apt to respond to the requests of companies that shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars on supportive campaign politics than to the needs of a college graduate or working family who donated 10 bucks. Doesn’t exactly smack of sound democratic governance.
Edmund Burke once said, "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." So what is at the heart of the endless stream of violence in our country — is it guns or is it something a lot harder to eradicate — passivity?
The overwhelming response would likely be "it's the guns, stupid." But in this fight, the individual with the loaded AK-47 rifle may be only slightly less dangerous than the passive citizen, the average person who may think "something should be done about guns,” but fails to stand up and make their voice heard.
Marianne Williamson, a bestselling author and convener of the upcoming Sister Giant conference on women and politics, has called on President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney to address “a meaningful array of topics” – including poverty, money in politics and incarceration rates in the U.S. – tonight during the first presidential debate.
Williamson talked to us earlier today about these issues, which are particularly pressing for Christians who take Matthew 25 seriously.
The interview was edited for length and content.
Q: What are you doing to get these issues out there?
A: Having a voice and creating your own platform is not all that difficult with today’s technology. I think what’s happening now is that, firstly, people are realizing that. Secondly, people are realizing that there are certain things that need to be said that simply are not being said as loudly as other things being said. When it comes to a politics of conscience, why wouldn’t we expect that during the debates there would be a conversation about the 23.1 percent of America’s children living in poverty, or the 34 percent of poor children, or the 46 million Americans living in poverty?
The impact of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) is experienced with increased intensity as we approach Election Day. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions have a First Amendment right to independent political expenditures, certain portions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act were reversed.
As a result, the voices surrounding political campaigns have risen in strength and size. And so, while a variety of viewpoints exist on the consequences of Citizens United, most agree that it has dramatically altered the culture of U.S. politics, and has thus sparked major discussion on the reach and limits of freedom of speech.
Due to the ramifications of Citizens United, we should indeed recognize and critique the role that freedom of speech holds within a mature democracy. However, as we focus on free speech, the time has come to also consider the contributions of its equally important companion, the responsibility to listen. In other words, as we ponder the primary ingredients of a healthy society, the delicate balance between freedom of speech and the responsibility to listen should be held as a critical priority.
A good history in The New Yorker of attempts at regulating campaign finance leading to the Citizens United case before the Supreme Court and how Chief Justice Roberts orchestrated the decision:
"The decision followed a lengthy and bitter behind-the-scenes struggle among the Justices that produced both secret unpublished opinions and a rare reargument of a case. The case, too, reflects the aggressive conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court. It was once liberals who were associated with using the courts to overturn the work of the democratically elected branches of government, but the current Court has matched contempt for Congress with a disdain for many of the Court’s own precedents."
Last evening, retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who led the dissent in the case, commented on it in a speech at the University of Arkansas. Asking why those with the most money are permitted to dominate the airwaves, he said:
"During the televised debates among the Republican candidates for the presidency, the moderators made an effort to allow each speaker an equal opportunity to express his or her views. Both the candidates and the audience would surely have thought the value of the debate to have suffered if the moderator had allocated the time on the basis of the speakers' wealth, or it they had held an auction allowing the most time to the highest bidder."
Yet thanks to the Court, that is essentially what we have in this election.
From Newsweek Magazine:
It’s worrying to think that shareholder democracy is needed to rectify shortcomings in the real thing, yet this week two of the nation’s biggest corporations will give their investors precisely that opportunity. Motions on the ballots at the annual meetings of Bank of America and 3M will act as referenda on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which handed companies the same freedoms of speech accorded people. Happily, restricting the use of corporate money in politics isn’t just good for democracy, it’s good business.