If anybody had any doubts about the influence of corporations in the United States political life, a recent Supreme Court ruling should dispel them. In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, reversing itself, to allow unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns. The damage that this ruling will have on the country’s democratic process should not be underestimated.
The influence of money on US politics is not new. Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor, was able to run successfully for office three times thanks in part to the personal funds he infused into his political campaign. The impact of this Supreme Court decision is even more drastic, allowing corporations to invest as much money as they want on political campaigns, deciding in fact the outcome of the elections.
As Senator Russell Feingold, democrat from Wisconsin, has pointed out, this ruling “…means that Wall Street banks and firms, having just taken our country into its worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, could spend millions upon millions of dollars on ads directly advocating the defeat of those candidates who want to prevent future economic disaster by imposing new financial service regulations.”
The amount of corporate money influencing the outcome of elections is staggering. During the 2008 election process, Fortune 500 companies reported profits of over $743 billion, while $2 billion were spent by candidates and political parties during that election. Those profits are just part of the story, since the money corporations have in their treasuries are several times higher than that reported amount.
In its ruling, the Court ignored long standing principles that for over two centuries had gained the public’s respect for its decisions, including the principle of stare decisis, compelling the Court not to depart from its own precedents in the absence of exigent circumstances. In a dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens stated, “I am not an absolutist when it comes to stare decisis, in the campaign finance area or in any other. No one is. But if this principle is to do any meaningful work in supporting the rule of law, it must at least demand a significant justification, beyond the preferences of five Justices, for overturning settled doctrine.”
Until this decision, corporations and unions were banned from spending their treasury funds on broadcast ads, campaign workers or billboards urging the election or defeat of a federal candidate. After World War II, that prohibition was extended to labor unions. The Court’s conservative group stated that the corporations had the same right to free speech as individuals; therefore, the government could not stop corporations from spending money to help their favored candidates.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion and the most moderate voice among conservatives, stated that “The government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker’s corporate identity.” What Justice Kennedy failed to mention is that this decision will be able to tilt the outcome of U.S. elections to corporate interests, including multinational and foreign corporations.
Although the damage to the democratic process caused by five out of the nine Justices may be mitigated (e.g., by shareholders directing corporate boards of directors to pledge not to use company money to influence elections), allowing corporate money to influence the electoral process has gravely undermined our democracy.
Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.