As we celebrate the Fourth, isn't it time to think about spreading
some democracy here at home? Here's a not-so-modest proposal to start: abolish
the concept of corporate 'personhood.'
Largely lost amid last week's Supreme Court rulings limiting
President Bush's imperial powers and upholding
Texas Republicans' 2003 gerrymandering was a decision that put the kibosh
on Vermont's campaign finance and spending laws -- the strictest in the nation
The justices, in a 6-3 decision, ruled
that the limits were unconstitutional according to the standard set out
in the landmark 1976 case, Buckley v. Valeo, which held that spending millions
of dollars to get elected is a protected form of political speech.
The ruling itself was hardly earth shattering; Vermont's spending limits may
well have been too onerous and even some of the liberal justices expressed concern
that the tight caps gave incumbents an unfair advantage. The court largely maintained
the legal status quo around an issue that's long been the subject of heated
But the decision reveals yet again how deeply entrenched the role of big money
is in the American political system. Over the last 150 years, bizarre legal
doctrines have developed that have effectively codified the power of special
interests. In addition to the idea in Buckley that 'money equals speech,' we've
been saddled with the Orwellian concept of "corporate
"Corporate personhood" gives corporations -- entirely artificial
entities created by the state -- the same individual rights that the framers
fought and died to secure for flesh-and-blood citizens (or at least for white
male property-holders, but you get the idea). The doctrine started in England
reasonably enough; it was only by considering corporations "persons"
that they could be taken to court and sued. But during the 19th century, the
Robber Barons and a few corrupt jurists deep in their pockets took the concept
to a whole new level. After the Civil War, while many of those same interests
were fighting to keep African Americans from being enfranchised, the doctrine
took on new weight -- the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment was
extended to corporations, and Thomas Jefferson slowly rolled over in his grave.
The trend of granting more and more rights to corporations continues
today. (A detailed discussion of how this all developed can be found here.)
As long as these ideas are embedded in our legal system, talk of cleaning up
government -- of campaign finance and lobby reform -- are just that: talk. On
these fundamental issues of democratic participation, incremental reform is
a road leading nowhere.
Which is why we need bold, populist ideas for real structural reform. I say
let's rip a page from Karl Rove's Scorched-Earth Politics for Dummies and offer
a progressive Constitutional Amendment that would end this madness once and
That could be as simple as a one-line amendment that rolls back Buckley by
explicitly stating that regulating the amount of money donated to campaigns
or setting limits on what candidates spend on advertising isn't the same as
putting limits on political speech.
But I think something even bolder is in order. I think it's time for a Defense
of Human Citizenship Amendment -- language that would strip the "personhood"
from corporations and give reformers a fighting chance to establish a true democracy
in the United States.
It should be as brief and straightforward as the Republicans' gay marriage
SECTION 1. Citizenship in the United States shall be conferred only on human
beings. Neither this Constitution nor the constitution of any State, nor state
or federal law, shall be construed to require that citizenship or the legal
incidents thereof be granted to corporations, partnerships, proprietorships
This would be great policy if enacted, and great politics regardless of whether
it were to become law. A failing campaign to restore human citizenship would
bring what has long been a contentious debate in legal and public policy circles
into the mainstream. It would be the left's turn to decry "judicial activism"
of the most pernicious kind, and it would be a valuable opportunity for some
real civic education for the broader electorate. We need that; polls show that
a majority of voters feel that corporations have too much influence over the
political realm, but most Americans don't understand the mechanisms with which
they maintain and wield that power.
It's an approach that might take a while to gain traction. But think about
what the right has been able to accomplish with the constitutional amendments
they push to ban flag-burning or gay marriage. They've taken a wonky narrative
about "judicial tyranny" which, on its face, is a ludicrously bad
political argument and they've made it into a hot button issue.
They did that with twenty-five years of Federalist Society conferences and
Wall Street Journal op-eds and the result is that a point of contention between
legal scholars became a central campaign line for the re-election of George
The Bush team offered up his divisive-but-popular federal "marriage amendment"
during the 2004 campaign, even though it had no chance of actually passing.
But on the state level, similar measures passed eighteen times, thanks always
to a predictable spike in Republican turnout -- big turnouts that helped Bush
win a second term.
(Virginia's Senate recently voted to put a marriage amendment on the ballot,
and conservative lawmakers in Maryland are trying to do the same in time for
the November election in an attempt to boost Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich's
Defending human citizenship is a chance to excite the progressive base in the
same way that the right's wedge-issue amendments rally their fundamentalist
ground troops time and time again.
There's nothing new about turning your opponents' best tactics against them.
A demoralized right did it when they were trying to re-group after the pummeling
Barry Goldwater, their Golden Boy, took in his landslide election loss in 1964.
They looked to the then dominant Democratic coalition for a clue as to how to
turn it around.
Paul Weyrich, founder of the Free
Congress Foundation, reminisced about those heady days:
"...study and application of your opposition's best practices can spur
greater innovation and success....Back in the 1970s... we stressed the importance
of grass-roots organizing. We took a page from organized labor's playbook,
modified it to fit our constituency and purposes, and started winning primaries
Constitutional amendments that fire up the Republican base are among the Rovian
right's "best practices," and there's no reason progressives can't
We hear all the time that there's a dearth of big ideas on the left. Here's
one that would have a profound impact on a broken political system. Some smaller
groups have been lobbying for this kind of reform for years -- it's time for
someone in the progressive establishment to pick it up and run with it.
is an AlterNet staff writer.
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