I had an opportunity to participate in a small part of what is becoming a large movement in support of the “Move to Amend” campaign to adopt an amendment to the United States Constitution that declares in no uncertain terms that corporations are not people. The local group here is comprised of a handful of passionate and determined men and women — veterans of progressive campaigns and protests all — who want nothing more than the elimination of corporate control over elected officials. I couldn’t agree more with the aims of this group. There’s obviously a corruption, and it can be readily traced back to lobbying, corporate interests, and campaign donations. All of which needs to stop and control of elected officials needs to be returned to the voters for whom they serve. So while I support the movement and its aims, I feel that there are talking points that are not being addressed in the public discourse that are an essential part of deciding if this movement is worth supporting.
Firstly, there are two versions of the amendment: the version I linked above, and the one penned by Senator Bernie Sanders here [PDF]. They are actually quite different from each other, and address different points of concerns. The MtA version attempts to establish that a) all corporations are not people, that b) money is specifically not speech and b) neither a nor b apply to the press. Bernie’s version states simply that for-profit corporations would no longer be allowed to participate — through financial means — in the electoral process. These are two fundamentally different statements and to put our support behind a “non-corporate-personhood” movement would seem to imply that they are both the same. Which to choose, which to choose. I will address the specific wordings of each in a later post, but suffice it to say that we have to either merge them or pick one to support or all of our efforts are for naught. For the sake of this post, let’s assume that we’ve settled on a compromise version of the two that includes proper wording addressing the MtA points.
The second talking point is the question of what will happen if the amendment succeeds. It seems like a simple question because we tend to see the success and lack thereof as a binary result. On the one hand corporations are removed from matters of free speech, their money is kept out of politics, and people will regain control of their representatives. Without this amendment, we imagine a country where more money means more speech, where politicians make decisions based on who their largest donors are, where the voting public is unwittingly duped into electing a puppet of some foreign power. I submit however that it is not so cut and dried as it would seem.
For instance, in the case of success will the corruption we’re railing against be cured? Will this amendment keep corporations from establishing some kind of legalized slush fund through which individuals can send donations or pay for campaigns on behalf of the corporation? Will this amendment keep corporations from providing ever-increasing funds to lobbyists and directly influence law making after the election process? Will this amendment in fact make elected officials more subservient to their constituents and less so to their donors? It’s reasonable to assume given the specificity of the language and purpose that the answer to all these questions is no. Let’s suppose, though, we live in a country where the press is free, money is not the same as speech (which means it can be regulated far more than just through time, manner, and place), and corporations are not covered under the Bill of Rights.
In this new country, the government is allowed to regulate the flow of money that supports individuals who are trying to speak because money is not speech and — given the precedent of Citizens United — could not legally be used for speech. If an individual is seeking a grant from the government or a government-funded agency, that grant could be denied if the money was going to be used to perform “speech”. Could a corporation rent a hall in town to present a documentary or educational film? What are we limiting by saying money is not protected speech?
Corporations in our new country would also no longer be covered by the Bill of Rights because of our new amendment. The government would be able to freely seize, shut down, censure, or otherwise inhibit the activities of any corporation regardless of due process, etc. This could be Monsanto, or your local church (a not-for-profit corporation). The Bill of Rights is what keeps the government from doing that. If it no longer applies to corporations, they are removed from its protections. Extending this a bit further, would a work-around be that corporate rules are changed so that they can be represented by a person? Can the chairman of the board work on behalf of the corporation, but still be protected by our new amendment and the Bill of Rights? It’s not unreasonable to believe so since this has not come up as a point of discussion.
Hyperbole aside, are these likely events? Given the history of government behavior when given the latitude for that behavior, it is safe to assume that we are not outside the realm of possibility. England, Italy, Japan, China, Germany, Russia, and the United States all have glaring histories that show how their government behaves when given the right mixture of latitude, reason, and will. Could this amendment provide or be a catalyst for that kind of mixture? It’s possible given what laws are passed afterwards and how desperate certain parties are. While the future is never certain nor predictable, we can safely say that there are unforeseen circumstances that are worse than what we face now.
Lastly, we’re presented with a state of affairs where our chosen version of the amendment doesn’t pass. What if what we’re left with is a post-2009 world where corporations spending money on campaigns is a form of speech, where they can create Superpacs and support a candidate? What is our recourse to such a world? In fact, it is the same as it is in our fictional future-world above: people and their level of determination to change government through the electoral process — which is on a basic level inviolate and sacred if handled in the correct way.
No matter how much money is thrown into a campaign, how muddled a message may get, people have the ability to find their way to the truth of things if they are determined enough. the Federal Election Commission publishes all donations a candidate receives. Corporate board members can be looked up. Individual’s associations can be researched. Who paid how much to whom is a question that in the age of Google, govtrack.us, and Wikipedia is not terribly difficult to answer. Public libraries provide Internet access, free magazines and newspapers. In other words, the methodology for dealing with corruption is as powerful as the citizenry’s desire to use it.
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While I support the idea that corporations are not people, and while I support the idea that money on the scale of the millions and millions of dollars we’re seeing should not be in politics, I support the amendment movement with caution. Whether the amendment succeeds or fails, there are outcomes that are unforeseen. This is because the problem is not a question of corporate personhood, campaign donations, or lobbying. The problem is that the majority of those who are currently in government are not governing well. The only sure way to deal with such a thing is through the willingness of the governed public to take control of their own destinies.
What we’re left with after all the dust clears are some basic tenets that have always been true about our country and are mentioned numerous times in the “Federalist Papers”. The first is that participation in government is a requirement of all voting age citizens. It is not a privilege, nor a right, but a responsibility of each governed citizen who is able to participate. The second is that when the citizenry do not participate, government is pulled from their hands by factions: religious, business, cultish, political. The nature of the faction doesn’t matter, what matters is that a minority (say 33%) becomes a majority as fewer and fewer people participate.
Simplified, I think my argument for supporting the move for a constitutional amendment could be written like this:
- Factions are anathema to a government that is meant to represent the entirety of the governed (Federalist Papers)
- Corporations are a faction that harms government (Assumption)
- The amendment is an attempt at limiting the powers of corporations (ibid.)
- Therefore, supporting the amendment helps limit the power of factions (1,3)
- Therefore, it is reasonable to support the amendment (4)
Reasonably speaking, then, should we support the amendment movement? Given that in either a passed or failed scenario, we are still relying on the citizenry to vote, participate, and ensure corporations don’t take over elections anymore than they have then yes, but only in understanding that it’s not the solution to all of the problems of government. In other words, support or not, the problems plaguing our government are not going to go away with the success or failure of this amendment. Since there’s no real way to tell if it will do more harm than good, it’s not unreasonable to support it, but it also may not lead the country to the solution that is expected.