OSPIRG Chair and Co-Coordinator for the Democracy Campaign
On January 21, 2010, the Unites States Supreme Court ruled that corporations are afforded the same rights as people under the law. Coupled with money being seen as equivalent to free speech, as decided in Buckley v. Valeo, a 1976 Supreme Court case on campaign finance reform, this represents the two cornerstones of corporate rule that have been laid in place.
These are the latest in a long string of court cases dating back to the early 1800’s exploring the legal position that corporations are granted under the law. These rulings enable corporations to flood political elections with unprecedented amounts of money in the form of campaign contributions because any limits are considered a restriction of free speech.
Money in politics is an underlying problem with many issues we face regarding environmental and consumer protection. These protections are not necessarily of interest to those who spend money on elections. When politicians receive large campaign contributions there can be a certain amount of influence exerted on them when they look toward re-election. Politicians may adjust their agendas to match those of donors, in order to attract repeat contributions in the next election cycle.
When this sort of thing happens, it leads to major donors being represented more broadly than overall constituencies. This pattern breeds the idea that being engaged in our democracy is not worthwhile and that involvement will not add up to anything compared to the influence of the elite.
A dangerous cycle of disenfranchisement follows when someone acts on this idea and disengages from the political system. Sadly, when people do not represent their interests in the system, their interests are overlooked, leading them to see their beliefs validated. This cycle creates a downward spiral that perpetuates the power of the wealthy donor. It is an example of how the government system can be gamed in the favor of a select few.
It is my belief that our government was created to be a tool for all citizens of the United States so they can best represent themselves and their interests in decisions that must be collectively made. That being said, if government is a tool and if apathy is driving people away from using it, they are not representing their interests in the decision-making process.
This leaves the tool open for use by others. This opens up the field for those who may not have the best interests of the many in mind and who may then begin using the government to build their positions in society.
Now insert the corporation: a business entity that is driven to protect the bottom line and maximize profits any way possible, regardless of social or environmental cost. With the tool that is government, seeing less and less participation from its citizens, a power vacuum is created which is very profitable for corporations to plug themselves into. Since corporations have a drive towards profit at any cost, the prospect of exploiting government is very beneficial for them. It also serves to represent their interests and build a system rigged in their favor that will maximize their profits.
Corporations are portrayed as evil for making the common-sense move to control our government system to benefit them. The reality is they are just capitalizing on the area that we have left open for them to exploit. If we want to counter the power that corporations and the wealthy elite have in our society we all must engage in our governmental system. Do not get me wrong, this entails more than just voting.
My recommendation is that when you find yourself frustrated over something our government does, do not let it jade you. That is exactly what maintains the power structure. We need to engage actively in protecting our interests in the decisions our government makes because many engaged and informed people will outweigh the flood of cash every time.