Corporatocracy and Its Discontents

By David Swanson

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has given out its 2010 Muzzle awards for those blocking freedom of speech, and the awards are all for particular petty instances of censorship. Stanley Fish muses in the New York Times about the conflict between valuing free speech and valuing democracy. What these two thoughtful, well-intended endeavors — the awards and the op-ed — seem to miss is that the greatest threat to free speech is the monopolization of speech by some vociferous defenders of free speech. The Supreme Court that ruled on “Citizens United vs. FEC” should not have gone without a Muzzle.

There are very few media outlets through which to reach the masses of American minds marinating in infotainment, and money buys both the advertisements and the filler in between them. And that money is very unevenly distributed among real people and between real people and so-called corporate persons, the latter possessing the greater rights to spend their greater share of the money on politicking. What they do is free speech, and it certainly drowns out democracy, but it also drowns out the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press of everybody else. Restraining these monopolists, taking political discussion out of the financial marketplace, opening up the media to more voices: these are reforms that increase freedom of speech; they don’t diminish it.

Citizens are united against the “Citizens United” decision, as the polling shows, and advocates from different sides of the political spectrum are calling for the amending of our Constitution via a convention called by two-thirds of the states. Clearly one way to solve the problem of judges claiming that spending money is speech (even if it effectively blocks a greater number of people’s speech) or that corporations are people — or various other crazy claims such as former attorney general Alberto Gonzales’s assertion that the Constitution’s ban on suspending habeas corpus does not imply that anyone has habeas corpus to begin with — is to go in and amend the Constitution to explicitly block loopholes, spell out every simple assumption, and otherwise update language with an eye to preempting the legalistic crimes of every future John Yoo or Jay Bybee. The Constitution is, of course, badly out of date as well as intentionally misinterpreted in areas where it is not so out of date. Amending it is long overdue. And we need to get to work.

But another possible solution has just arisen. It’s not as healthy a solution. It doesn’t open up an avenue for as broad a range of reforms. It does not restore any powers to the rightful sovereigns of the nation. And we have even less ability to influence it. But it is a real possibility, and the opportunity for it will come and go relatively quickly. I’m referring, of course, to the possibility of placing a new justice on the Supreme Court who commits to reading the Constitution as if it were written in English. This will, of course, require denying Republican senators the use of the filibuster for the confirmation, and appointing the right sort of nominee. Those two necessary steps can only be taken by the Democratic senators and the President. They have already placed an apparently decent justice on the Supreme Court, so another one is possible. But the Republicans will fight it, and the Democrats may not have the nerve. We may see a weak nominee who approximates the so-called “public option” in the healthcare campaign withdrawn and replaced by an all-out corporatist. We should be prepared for this and work against it, but realize that amending the Constitution will remain a solution even in the worst case scenario.

And the movement to make an amendment process begin is gaining ground, driven by FreeSpeechForPeople and MoveToAmend.

“Amend the Constitution”: That is the cover title for The Progressive Magazine’s April 2010 issue. In the lead article, Matthew Rothschild, the magazine’s editor, writes: “Make no mistake about it: The [Supreme] court’s ruling in ‘Citizens United’, if left to stand, will destroy whatever hope we may ever have had of democracy in this country. It will entrench corporate power as never before. And the promise of America will be dashed.”

And John Nichols of The Nation Magazine posted a blog piece entitled: “Tell Congress to Get Serious About Corporate Campaign Abuse.” Nation
The piece discusses the constitutional amendment that Congresswoman Donna Edwards and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr., have introduced to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling in “Citizens United,” an amendment which now has 23 additional co-sponsors in the US House of Representatives.

If you prefer video to text, watch these recent video productions of remarks by John Bonifaz and Jeff Clements.

In the meantime, Congress is helping to demonstrate that far too little can be done without amending the Constitution, by proposing lesser legislative reforms, reforms that could do some good in the short term if passed, but reforms that show how very far the Democratic Party in Washington is from the full restoration of voting and speech rights that’s needed.

“Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) are expected to unveil their legislation by the end of this week, although an announcement could slip into the beginning of next week, a Democratic aide said.”

And here’s the great news, which also forebodes a nominee filibustering with the Democrats’ blessing:

“The Democrats are working to line up Republican support in both chambers to make the bill a bipartisan offering. Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.), Todd Platts (R-Pa.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.), all previous backers of campaign finance reform measures, are seen as the most likely GOP supporters of the bill, sources involved in the discussions said.”

And here’s what may be in the bill:

“Major provisions include strict disclosure and disclaimer requirements for corporate-funded campaign ads, including a mandate that CEOs and top donors appear on camera to ‘approve’ messages, much as candidates are required to do now. The bill would also explicitly ban contributions from companies with a 20 percent or greater foreign ownership stake, as well as from government contractors or firms that have received and not repaid Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds. . . . Many reform advocates are hoping to add a provision that would require corporations to hold a shareholder vote for significant political expenditures.”

In other words, Congress is going to layer some good but nonetheless frightening formalities and due process on the outrageous policy of permitting unlimited corporate financial influence . . . er, excuse me . . . speech. What’s frightening is that this could move us toward greater acceptance of this outrage. What’s good, is that at least some people would become more aware of exactly who was telling them what to think. Here’s Business Week (Bloomberg):

“U.S. companies would lose their ability to secretly finance political advertising run by organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce under a bill being considered by Democratic lawmakers. . . . The bill, which may be introduced as early as next week, would require nonprofit groups, unions and trade associations including the Chamber to identify who pays for ads designed to sway opinion on candidates for federal office. ‘The Chamber is going to end up with at least one very undesirable element: The public is going to know exactly which corporations are the major funders,’ said Craig Holman, who handles campaign finance issues for Public Citizen. . . . The nation’s biggest business lobbying group, the Chamber spent $47 million on so-called issue advertising last year, mostly on health-care policy, according to Kandar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group in Arlington, Virginia. The Chamber has said it plans to spend $50 million on candidate- focused ads alone this year.”

Is that all?

Actually, no, it isn’t:

“An additional $144 million of Chamber spending went for lobbying last year, more than five times that of the second-largest spender, Exxon Mobil Corp. That spending isn’t affected by the court ruling or proposed legislation. . . . Disclosing that ads were funded by a particular corporation would diminish their effectiveness, said Heather Gerken, a law professor at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. ‘Corporations may be the one institution less popular than Congress,’ Gerken said. ‘Those well-funded campaigns may be far less popular if the people know who’s funding them.’ . . . The Chamber weighed in this year during the Massachusetts special election that sent Republican Scott Brown to the Senate to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy, breaking the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority. The business group spent $1 million urging voters to ‘call Scott Brown and thank him for supporting a plan to fix our economy.’ ‘Election after election has proven that the Chamber is the big dog,’ said Mike Gehrke, a spokesman for the Washington- based union federation Change to Win, which supports disclosing contributors. ‘People who are worried about corporate influence in elections need to be worried about the Chamber.'”

Those worried about the safety of coal miners, too, need to be worried about the U.S. Chamber, which has spent hundreds of millions to fight any regulation of its dues paying members and any regulation of pollution caused by those members, including U.S. Chamber board member and Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. Here’s In These Times:

“One of the country’s worst corporate outlaws is Don Blankenship, CEO of the Virginia-based Massey Energy Corporation, which owns the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia where 25 29 miners met their deaths yesterday after an explosion collapsed the mine’s roof. . . . With Massey Energy growing in wealth and political power, Blankenship has been able to far outspend the organizations and candidates—both political and judicial—who might stand up against his ruthless policy of pillage and plunder. When Blankenship became infuriated with all the safety, environmental, and labor-law violations with which Massey was being hit, he took action. He used his wealth to essentially buy two State Supreme Court seats in West Virginia, where many of Massey’s mine operations are located.

“He was unfazed by a firestorm of public criticism over his spending millions to buy sleazy, deceptive ads that clearly drowned West Virginia democracy with his dollars. Blankenship’s $2.5 million worth of TV ads in 2004 falsely accused the court’s chief justice of freeing a child molester—cynically hiding the CEO’s real agenda of getting a pliable court on environmental violations and other corporate concerns—and replaced him with a reliable friend of business.

“Nor was Blankenship disturbed much when a U.S. Supreme Court majority ruled that one of his paid-for State Supreme Court justices couldn’t participate in a case involving Massey because of the flagrant conflict of interest. (But the court’s recent Citizens United case gives him power to engage in unlimited campaign spending on ads attacking his enemies.)”

And the New York Times:

“In a state where candidates who win typically spend less than $20,000, Mr. Blankenship has poured more than $6 million into political initiatives and local races over the past three years. . . . ‘Don Blankenship would actually be less powerful if he were in elected office,’ said United States Representative Nick J. Rahall II, a Democrat whose district includes a majority of Massey’s coal mines. ‘He would be twice as accountable and half as feared.'”

At we think Blankenship resigning (as Massey investors want) would fail to deter the same behavior by other robber barons who choose to treat criminal fines as the cost of doing business. While the laws restraining corporatocracy grow ever weaker, they do need to be enforced if there is to be any point in strengthening them. Blankenship should be prosecuted for homicide., a coalition of NGOs dedicated to corporate and government accountability, has been warning for months about the devastating effect of U.S. Chamber of Commerce policies on the well being of Americans. “The convergence of the Chamber’s policies against regulation of workplace safety and the disaster of mining coal without regard for the environmental impact resulted in the death of 29 hard working West Virginian miners,” said attorney and spokesman Kevin Zeese. “This was not an accident, but rather the result of deliberate and intentional decisions and actions of Don Blankenship, a director of the United States Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Blankenship and Chamber CEO Tom Donohue must be held accountable for these deaths. What is it going to take for Congress and the President to stop coddling criminals, masquerading as legitimate businessmen, who cause the deaths of our loved ones? Blankenship, with the lobbying army of the Chamber to back him up, has thumbed his nose at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, ignoring or appealing every violation, including the scores that resulted in coal mine evacuations and the hundreds of other serious violations. As the Washington Post pointed out in a Saturday editorial, these 29 deaths would not have occurred absent this intentional conduct of Blankenship. He is just as criminally culpable as any mass murderer.”

The Charleston, W.Va., Gazette, has also concluded that the deaths would not have occurred without the political abuses and endless safety violations and legal appeals by Massey. has called for the immediate arrest of Don Blankenship for homicide, and a complete criminal investigation of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its CEO Tom Donohue to determine what policies and practices led to the deaths of these miners, whether Chamber lobbyists and lawyers were used to cover-up or avoid compliance with safety regulations, whether Massey Energy, the Chamber and others conspired to create the conditions that caused the deaths, and whether the Chamber is being used to pressure those in various political branches to stop a criminal investigation. also called on all congress members to immediately issue a standing order to their staff to cease all communication and contact with U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbyists.

And there’s another crime Massey is guilty of. He’s personally met with workers to threaten to fire them if they voted to join a labor union. And had those 29 workers belonged to a union, they could have refused unsafe work while keeping their jobs. You won’t hear about the union factor in the media, except as a supposedly coequal source of political corruption with corporations. Unions just don’t have the corporate media, or money, or what pass for “laws” on their side.

And who does? Why Citizens United, of course. They have an unconstitutional Supreme Court ruling with their name on it, and they’re out raising money with what my friend Steve Cobble calls “their usual fiction-based fear-mongering.” This involves recorded phone calls from Dick Morris, “a particularly sleazy and manipulative political adviser, who has advised both Jesse Helms and Bill Clinton, and who hates Hillary Clinton now.”

Not so far away from New Mexico, where Dick Morris now sucks on telephones instead of toes, lies Nevada, where the latest beneficiary of corporate spending is none other than the man who will likely permit a filibuster to maintain a corporate Supreme Court, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Let me close with this presumably made-up yet plausible glass-half-full lesson to all of us:

“Nevada, a state which has suffered mightily during the nation’s current economic woes, a consequence of the downturn in tourism and the collapse of the Las Vegas housing market, has a new economic engine, Harry Reid himself. An influx of anti Reid conventions and events has given a sharp boost to the state economy.

“There’s no doubt about it,” says a spokesman for the state’s visitor and tourism bureau, “Right now, the State is deriving big benefits from the national anti Reid sentiment on the Right. We are planning to take advantage of this while it lasts, a new promotional campaign is in the works. We will be staging anti Reid rallies every week this summer, with major celebrity participation. Sarah Palin is just the beginning. If Senator Reid is reelected, this could carry us through the current rough spot in our state economy.”

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