Fascism, Corporatism & Plutocracy, LLC
I am a corporation. Hath not a corporation eyes? Hath not a corporation hands,organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a person is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
“Corporations are people, my friend.”
If a certain Republican gets his mitts on the White House, and the throttles of power, he will do what he can to further that quaintly malevolent notion. He presents himself as a candidate, for the second time, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court chose to lay our political system wide open to megatonnages of money never before seen, from those with a lot of money to drop. “Those” just happen to be large, for-profit corporations.
However, the plaintiff who had challenged the McCain-Feingold limits on corporate political spending (on First Amendment grounds) was neither large, nor for-profit. It was a non-profit corporation that wanted to air an anti-Hillary Clinton film during the 2008 campaign. Although many, lay and learned, have shouted “Nein! ” to the Five behind the much-maligned Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010, the ruling’s regrettable consequences do not stem from the premise that “corporations are people”. They stem from a failure to recognize that people are people . . . and that people will find ways to circumvent even those restrictions on political spending that are indisputably constitutional.
This liberal is prepared to say that there is not all that much wrong with the Citizens United decision. For the most part, it had to be decided as it was. Most moderately-aware Americans have heard of Citizens United, but few (including many lawyers) can say with certainty just what it did, and did not, establish. The decision, and the issues, are complex. However, the case has become shorthand for what’s wrong (and has now been made worse) with our national election campaign system: The unseemly role of money. In its simplest terms, Citizens United says that, like individuals (see Buckley v. Valeo, 1976), corporations and unions may also contribute unlimited amounts of money in connection with national political campaigns.
Incidentally, the Right says to the Left that we should not look this gift horse in the mouth – i.e., that we should be careful what we wish for (undoing or reversing Citizens United) – because the decision empowers unions just as much as it does corporations. Well, maybe. Not really. Citizens United leaves in place laws that allow union members to object to (and veto) the spending of any part of their dues for political messages that they disagree with. There is no such comparable law empowering shareholders to expressly deprive their corporations of funds for propaganda. Shareholders are left to fend for themselves with the usual tepid tools with which they can challenge any actions of the companies they own a part of. (These tools, the Court majority blithely assumes, are sufficient and effective.) The practical result is that for-profit corporations gain far more from Citizens United than unions do.
Citizens United is simply the latest step in the progression of the theme that, in connection with political campaigns, money = “speech” (as in the Free Speech protected by the First Amendment). I cautiously use the phrase “in connection with” because, rightly or wrongly, the Court is accused of having widened a loophole of ambiguity – so that donors and Super PACs can now appear to be “independent” of a particular candidate and his/her own campaign organization, and thus give without limitation (lawfully). The important phrase here is appear to be.
Citizens United kept in place the established principle that Congress may set limits on money contributions made directly to candidates’ own campaign organizations. (It also affirmed that laws requiring the identification and disclosure of donors are constitutional; more on that below.) Those limits are premised on the real need to limit both actual and perceived corruption in our electoral system (both the actual quid pro quo buying of influence, and the mere potential for it). What Citizens United declared un-constitutional was any attempt to legislatively limit the amounts of “independent” expenditures that may be spent by individuals, unions, or corporations (either for-profit or nonprofit). Direct contributions are thus deemed capable of eroding public confidence in the integrity of our electoral system; indirect spending is deemed unlikely to do that. The former may therefore be limited by law, says the Court; the latter cannot.
It would be foolish, and probably incorrect, to try to reverse the secure precedent that money spent to pay for messages equals “speech” that’s protected by the First Amendment. It would also be foolish, and probably incorrect, to try any longer to distinguish different instances of that speech for different treatment, simply because it is uttered, or paid for, by coporations. Nothing in the Constitution itself, or in established rulings, would justify either position any longer (and the Court has made it clear that limiting the “speech” of any corporations would necessitate limiting the speech of all corporations . . . including media corporations. Nothing would be a more patent violation of the First Amendment than that.) Like it or not, the Citizens United reasoning on those points is sound.
If the Supreme Court majority signing on to the Citizens United ruling can be faulted for anything, it is perhaps naiveté. No one, I submit, has done a better job than The Daily Show and The Colbert Report of demonstrating the folly of believing that SuperPACs are “independent” of the candidates that their messages just happen to favor (especially when the Super PACs are run by people closely tied to the candidate and their organization).
In choosing to assume that big-money infusions can meaningfully be kept “independent” of candidates and their campaigns, the Court’s conservative Citizens United majority then took the unavoidable next logical step: It kept in place the rationale for earlier Court rulings that the First Amendment disallows the limiting of independent expenditures: namely, the fact that they needn’t be limited. They need not be, the Court has said before, because “independent” spending and messages that just happen to favor or assist one candidate over others cannot be shown to equal the kind of specific corruption exemplified by, say, bribery. (And bribery, they say, only results from overly large direct contributions to candidates.) If you detect something circular in the reasoning here – a bit of begging the question – you are not alone.
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Many have overlooked the good news: the fact that the Citizens United court also decided, by 8 to 1, that laws requiring disclosure of funding sources are not an infringement of First Amendment rights. However, at the moment, the primary federal overseer of campaign conduct, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) is, and chooses to be, toothless in that regard. It will be up to millions of citizens with a small “c” (not the “Citizens” who produced the anti-Hillary film) to pressure Congress to enact meaningful disclosure laws. (Such laws could further empower, or direct, other agencies as well, including the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to implement and enforce their own such laws.)
Many, mostly on the Left, have either concluded or assumed that Citizens United symbolizes, and enshrines, the hated proposition that corporations are “people” (a proposition more or less based upon the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution). Whatever the reasons for its resurgence, it’s that proposition which is now front and center, and is defended by many on the Right (including, most especially, Mr. Romney – who made a fortune running one corporation (Bain Capital,) which engorged itself upon the carcasses of other corporations). Hence the debate, amidst the latest heat-generating (but seldom light-generating) Presidential campaign: Assuming, for argument’s sake, that the First Amendment guarantees individuals (that is, actual people) the right to spend unlimited money paying for political messages, does the “personhood” of corporations entitle them to do the same?
Effectively dismantling the “corporations are people” bedrock (or is it marsh?), upon which the barrier to limiting corporate “speech” is built, would likely take a Constitutional amendment. Even after we’ve done that, however, the Constitution woud still, most likley, not allow us to choose to stifle some corporations but not others. Nor should we ever do that.
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Is there, then, any point in examining the difference between the kind of corruption that overly-large direct campaign contributions foster, and the comparative harmlessness of unlimited “indirect” spending? The Right loves its slogans and talking points. As we know, thanks to the Right, Liberals want to foist a Nanny State on everybody. Such thinking, says the Right, overstates the problem of campaign advertising – which, they say, has only a negligible effect on voters’ opinions and election outcomes anyway. (But, we might ask innocently: As with all advertising, why would anyone spend that much money on it if it didn’t work?)
Conservative attorney Paul Sherman, defending Citizens United, downplays the effect of big-media campaign spending. He points out (patronizingly) that there is “an intermediate step between political spending and electoral results: voting.” In other words, we patronizing liberals give the public too little credit for being able to discriminate intelligently. I would say to Mr. Sherman that what matters in the campaign finance debate is not only the integrity of our officeholders, and the literal buying and selling of votes, but also the appearance of integrity in our political institutions. It is not, as the anti-“nanny state” crowd argues, that we seek to deprive the public of its right to accept or reject campaign messages as they see fit. Rather, we see the harm in that corrosive set of beliefs that money talks, that the wealthy and powerful matter more than the solitary citizen, and that candidates and winners are beholden to their patrons. It is that set of beliefs which undermines our system, and the average person’s faith in it.
Even the Supreme Court has recognized this, and explicitly:
Under a system of private financing of elections, a candidate lacking immense personal or family wealth must depend on financial contributions from others to provide the resources necessary to conduct a successful campaign. The increasing importance of the communications media and sophisticated mass-mailing and polling operations to effective campaigning make the raising of large sums of money an ever more essential ingredient of an effective candidacy. To the extent that large contributions are given to secure a political quid pro quo from current and potential office holders, the integrity of our system of representative democracy is undermined . . .
Of almost equal concern as the danger of actual quid pro quo arrangements is the impact of the appearance of corruption stemming from public awareness of the opportunities for abuse inherent in a regime of large individual financial contributions. . . . Congress [may] legitimately conclude that the avoidance of the appearance of improper influence “is also critical . . . if confidence in the system of representative Government is not to be eroded to a disastrous extent.” . . . . [L]aws making criminal the giving and taking of bribes deal with only the most blatant and specific attempts of those with money to influence governmental action. And while disclosure requirements serve . . . many salutary purposes . . . ,Congress [is] surely entitled to conclude that disclosure [is] only a partial measure, and that contribution ceilings [are] a necessary legislative concomitant to deal with the reality or appearance of corruption inherent in a system permitting unlimited financial contributions, even when the identities of the contributors and the amounts of their contributions are fully disclosed.
Buckley v. Valeo (1976) (Emphasis added.) Sadly, the Citizens United majority focused upon simple bribery as the primary evil to be avoided, and deemed it the sole evil that can be regulated without violating the First Amendment.
Blatant bribery is not, however, all that the public cares about. Most citizens agree that they won’t tolerate other conduct – such as lying – in a candidate for high office. (Or, at any rate, they are eager to spot it, and decry it, in candidates they oppose. They are less eager to sniff it out in their favored candidate, or even to recognize their candidate’s tacit approval of others’ lies – a special form of cowardice indeed.)
Maybe we can improve upon the current farce, in which candidates pretend to have “no connection” with the “independent” groups and SuperPACs that run ads in their favor. Maybe it’d be better if the unlimited spending, and the Super PACs they fund, were expressly coordinated directly with candidates and their campaigns. Then, perhaps, we’d see candidates forced to courageously own the messages which they now, shamefully and disingenuously, disavow (if they have the guts to disavow them at all).
Both Gingrich and Romney were right about one another in this 2012 primary season: They are both cowards and liars, each permitting others to denounce their opponent for them (in ways sometimes accurate, but often deceptive). Said the proud right-wing ideologue, Justice Antonin Scalia, in Doe v. Reed (2010): “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.” Smart man.
Maybe effective disclosure is the best we can hope for, or seek. That, and better arming the public against bullshit. . . which means that people have to appreciate the difference between real journalism and propaganda.
Recent trends are not promising.
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“Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” – Ambrose Bierce
Business isn’t evil, per se. Nor business owners, nor corporations. But neither are their participants demigods. In the theology of Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, Mitt Romney and Scott Walker, one dare not criticize Business and its captains. It is as though, to borrow from the Mozart of “Amadeus”, those persons shit marble.
It is not only the unchecked power of the state that is to be feared. The perversion and distortion of the legitimate, necessary, and limited purposes of business is an evil to be despised just as much, if not more. The Right rails against government which has [allegedly] overreached its
limited and legitimate purposes, all the while absolving Business and its worshipers of their own sins of megalomania and bloat. Certain people sit inside their corporations, work their levers, and use those levers to manipulate others, and the body politic. No fingerprints left at the crime scene.
With the exception of the new concept of “B Corporations” – a concept that should be as commonplace and unremarkable
as breathing – corporations do not exist to promote or protect the public good. (Unlike a conventional corporation, a B Corporation’s directors cannot be sued by its shareholders merely for failing to maximize profit to the exclusion of all other considerations.) When capitalism runs rampant and unchecked, on the premise that it can do no harm, private interests grab control of, and exploit for private gain, even the most fundamental goods that belong in the hands of the public (including water and electricity. Did I see some hands raised for health care, as well?) Naomi Klein has persuasively documented the anti-democratic wreckage left around the globe by corporatism, and the methodical privatization of public utilities and resources, all in the name of “free markets”.
Mohandas Gandhi articulated Seven Deadly Social Sins, of which three are now writ large: Wealth Without Work, Politics Without Principle, Commerce Without Morality. (“Ah”, says Rick Sanctimonium, “Gandhi also listed Education Without Character. Christianity is the Character that belongs in our education . . . just as it is the ‘Principle’ that belongs in our politics.” Says you, Mr. Sanctimonium. And so say all of your fellow American Taliban – who never miss an opportunity to misunderstand and misconstrue core principles of our Constitution, and our republic.)
In a crumbling economy, words substitute for goods. Listen to the messages around us: Banks are “stores”. Investment schemes are “products”. Money is “speech”. Corporate personhood and Citizens United accomplish their distortion of the Framers’ intentions by untethering Business from its fundamental purpose – the production and provision of things and services that people really need – and substituting manipulation as the essential activity.
The primary purpose of the corporate entity is to shield its principals from liability. That is not an opinion. That is what they are for. Add to that feature the newly-enhanced capacity to manipulate, and big business and big money (and their political accomplices) turn corporations into dangerous things indeed. Thus we see that corporations are not really people, although of course some people run them. They are, rather, monsters – monsters wearing person suits.
Americans who hate and fear our government do not generally hate and fear corporations. They have it exactly backward. While it is true that governments can amass fearsome power, and that the U.S. government has done so, so can corporations. The difference is that any ordinary person can help effect change in the former, but seldom, without the means to own a share, can they do so in the latter. Governments can and do help the helpless, prevent crimes against Nature, and punish rapaciousness. Indeed they must be the ones to accomplish those good and necessary things; they wield power that most individuals cannot. That is the very basis of the rule of law. Corporations seldom do those things; that is not, generally, what they are for.
Simple-minded politicians pandering to simple-minded audiences insist that government must be run like a business, or like the average household. But government is neither a business nor a household. That is not what government is for.
There have been great wrongs done: In Bhopal, India; in the Gulf of Mexico; on the US mainland. A few eyewitnesses fingered Union Carbide, BP, Enron, Arthur Anderson – corporations, all. Alas, no one ever gets a really good look at the perp (eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable); even the gender is seldom known for sure.
If only there was DNA evidence.
The people of Myanmar, Egypt, Libya and Syria haven’t been fighting to abolish government; they’ve been fighting to participate in it. That’s the fight that’s needed here, now. We need more actual people running our government, and fewer monsters in people suits.
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“Frankly, one of our political parties is insane – and I think we all know which one it is.”
-Bruce Bartlett (Republican former Treasury official and Reagan adviser)
Today’s Right (by “today” I mean from 1980 to the present) excoriates Big Government, or government in general, while blithely ignoring the fact that it is mere people who compose it. The Right simultaneously extols the unqualified good that Business does (encouraging the rest of us to do likewise) – by reminding us that Business and corporations are nothing but “people”. People of unqualified virtue, no less.
Simple-minded concepts for a simple-minded, receptive, audience. It’s this kind of thinking that has made the U.S.A. the once-great nation that it is.
The Right in this country, and the Tea Party fanatics in particular, endlessly beat the drums of “Liberty” and “Freedom”, as if consensus on the meaning of those words were beyond dispute. (Beware, said prominent conservative and brilliant linguist S. I. Hayakawa, scoundrels who manipulate through their overuse of abstractions.) Too often, this “freedom” is little more than the freedom to acquire power and means, as if those were the highest social good, or the purpose of America, or of our revolution. This freedom is exercised in a moral vacuum, devoid of its necessary twin, responsibility.
Not even our Constitution is designed to bestow unconditional rights or liberties. Every responsible examination of the extent of one right takes into consideration its effect upon conflicting rights. (The right to swing one’s fist ending where another person’s nose begins, and all that.) The right to free speech, for instance, does not include the right to defame, or to sell products fraudulently; the right to practice one’s religious beliefs doesn’t include the right to have the government’s help imposing those beliefs upon others.
In like manner, the right to pursue wealth does not include the right to steal, defraud, pollute and kill in the course of that pursuit. I have written elsewhere of negative externalities: The unaccounted-for effects of large-scale phenomena (such as “cheap” goods sold by WalMart coast to coast, or plentiful, cheap carbon-based energy sources). Because, by definition, such things are generally unaccounted-for, the true, total cost of many things is seldom acknowledged. In a similar vein, I have argued elsewhere that the “self-made man” is seldom self-made, and that few larger-than-life successful people have, in fact, pulled themselves up solely by their own bootstraps. The Tea Party, and others of Libertarian stripe, conveniently ignore the collateral damage of the Sam Waltons, Dick Cheneys, Mitt Romneys or Ken Lays. (It is not enough to say that, “Well, Ken Lay went to prison.” That did not make his victims whole. Nor has it changed the permissive environment, and culture, in which his crimes were not only possible, but inevitable.)
It can be demonstrated persuasively that a negative externality of Halliburton’s success (and the further enrichment, if not of Dick Cheney directly, then of his cronies) was the needless and deceit-based invasion of Iraq – with its 110,000 Iraqi civilians dead, 6,300 American troops lost, and our descent back into serious fiscal ill health. Ask those downsized by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, or run out of business by WalMart, and they will identify the negative externalities of those success stories.
The fanatical Right ignores the fact that many a for-profit corporation has benefitted hugely from research performed at public universities (and, at a time when this nation had a sound and impressive public infrastructure, they benefitted from that infrastructure). They’ve benefitted from workers trained in our public schools. They’ve benefitted from public airwaves made available to them for a song. They’ve benefited from mining rights practically given away.
They also conveniently forget the zeal of their fellow Republican, trust-buster Teddy Roosevelt. No less than Republican general-turned-politician Dwight Eisenhower first decried the “miltary-industrial complex”.
Rights. Responsibilities. Accountability.
A full accounting. . . . something any responsible CEO should gladly endorse.
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“Fascism” – The New Spinach
Indiscriminately tarring anything and everything one doesn’t like as “fascist” is nothing new. Just as many hippies did it in the 60s as Tea Party animals do today. In many people’s minds, “fascism” is anything dictatorial or oppressive (or anything they view as such).
The great and horrible irony is that the term fascist most aptly applies to the sort of nation the GOP ideologues are helping the U.S. to become. We think of fascism as something from a bygone era – something that happened in a world seen only in black and white newsreels. In fact, when it happens it happens in full color, in a world much like our own. Fascism is most generally understood to reflect a domination by private big-business interests (albeit with some degree of absorption into, control by, or assistance from, the state). In this it differs from socialism, which in its purest form is a near-total replacement of private enterprise with state control. However, fascism is also marked by militarism, anti-intellectualism, xenophobia and nationalism. “Nationalism” should not be confused with mere harmless patriotism; it is, rather, a deep, abiding (and unquestioned) belief that one’s nation is superior to all others, in ways that those others dare not question. In the United States, it takes the form of the [often unspoken] belief that we are God’s infallible gift to humanity. God help those among us who dare criticize our nation’s actions (unless, of course, a liberal happens to be in the White House at the time).
In this undereducated and proudly ignorant nation, the freedom-touters (and abstraction-lovers) abuse, misuse and overuse words like “fascism” and “socialism”, with little understanding of the meaning or variants of the concepts. In an undereducated and proudly ignorant society, they can get away with this. Even those they decry as socialist, such as Obama, can somehow, in their confused minds, earn the label “fascist” as well. (Never mind that his relatively modest health care reform had its genesis years ago, in ideas supported by prominent Republicans.)
Many insist that fascism is a phenomenon linked with left-wing dictatorships. We have the Nazis to thank for that, to some extent; they did, after all, rather arbitrarily (or cynically, or slyly) choose to call themselves National Socialists. (Ann Coulter, professional liberal-baiter and amateur historian, is one of those inclined to take Hitler literally.) In point of fact, however, the preeminent fascists of our time (Franco; Mussolini; Hitler) have not been heads of socialist governments; there was no ideologically based public control of the means of production. (Rather, the state commandeered aspects of industry in the service of its war machine. This was exploitation of private industry for the purposes of overtly repressive dictatorships.) If Obama, the aspiring socialist (or fascist), intended his “takeover” of GM to be the opening salvo in an assault on American values and our way of life, it could only be viewed as a comical parody of true socialism (or communism, or fascism, or vegetarianism) – a half-assed, half-hearted half measure . . . a mere laughable ineptness that should earn him one term.
The thing that people tend to forget (even scholars such as Coulter) is that the terms democracy, dictatorship, socialism, communism, fascism, and capitalism refer to either a form of government or of national economy. Democracies are not necessarily, or always, capitalist. Socialism is not a necessary concomitant of dictatorship (except in the minds of the ignorant), nor is the reverse necessarily true. The fascist Third Reich remained essentially capitalist throughout – even at the height of the war, when many an industry was commandeered in the service of weapons production. Indeed, symbiotic arrangements between the regime and private companies (Krupp) abounded, and ran the gamut from the cozy, which enriched the latter, to the heavy-handed. Indeed, to a great extent the variety was accounted for by the shortsighted, improvisational nature of Hitler’s transaction of the war, and the ad hoc structuring and staffing of his government. Thus can capitalism, “socialism”, fascism and dictatorships of a less-definable nature occur in the real world.
Just as genuine education becomes scarcer (and mocked) in this nation, talk becomes cheaper – and words that should have unique import are devalued and made ridiculous. Islamo-fascists. Eco-terrorists. Feminazis.
As quality journalism becomes equally scarce, entertainment and opinion are substituted for news, and complex ideas are subsumed by slogans, rhetoric and overused abstractions. Like all abstractions, buzz-words are just that: mere words – tools which, when given more power and credence than they merit, are mistaken for real things, and can move a people to believe, and to do, dangerous and horrific things.
We needn’t descend into “wingnut” conspiracy theories, of either Right or Left variety, to recognize that concentrations of power are both bad in principle and malevolent in actuality. As is hypocrisy. (Beware the foes of “big government” who nevertheless seek bans on contraception, a never-shrinking military, and an ever-greater role for [their brand of] God in public life.)
Thus, an even greater danger than fascism (or communism, or that most ridiculously-overused generalization of all, terrorism) is the lazy resort to such simplistic categories in the first place. It lays the groundwork for all the other dangers. There really is no pure form of any of them, and little consensus as to what such fluid labels mean. (Mussolini is widely believed to have said, “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power”, although the context is hard to determine.) FDR referred to fascism in a 1938 address to Congress on the need for strong antitrust legislation: “The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.”
The greatest danger to liberty is thus neither big government nor big business; it is the unholy alliance of the two. It matters not if the government is right or left wing. Eisenhower foresaw it, and Hallburton embodies it
Now Mitt Romney will serve as the newest chearleader for the “get government out of the way” movement. But Romney, the GOP and the “run government like a business” lobby don’t intend to merely simplify our lives (a proposition that’s hard to oppose, in principle), by thoughtfully and carefully examining our body of regulations, seeking to streamline or improve it. They don’t intend to preserve the bulk of health, safety, financial and environmental protections that have, for the most part, been crafted in deliberative fashion, with public input, due process and a proper regard for science and facts. To the extent they want to preserve government (rather than sabotage it), what they intend to do is make it the handmaiden of Business – its partner in crime – in a Business-scripted tragedy that ends with the evisceration of meaningful regulations. This will be accepted, because our undereducated, science-averse populace doesn’t have the critical thinking skills needed to question it. It will be the work product of a political party that does not oppose government per se, but which, rather, intends to make government the instrument of the commercialization of all aspects of life – to the relative exclusion of the aesthetic, the moral and the just.
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Back, then, to the issue of political advertising. No, let’s call it what it is: Propaganda. Are we really to believe that this fight is about nothing more than the freedom of those with lots of money to flush it down the toilet? If advertising didn’t work, it wouldn’t exist as the core industry it is, and has always been, ever since the first Mad Men roamed the earth. 30 seconds during the Super Bowl wouldn’t fetch $3.5 million.
No, the fight is about the disproportionate influence of the immensely wealthy. How many ordinary persons can, with their donation of a few dollars, buy their own custom message that reaches millions? Antonin Scalia et al disingenuously argue that the mega-spending permitted by Citizens United doesn’t “buy votes”. Apparently, unless a fat cat is caught in the act of literally handing a bag of cash to an official, in exchange for a specific promise to do a specific thing, all’s right with the world. How do they not understand (why do we allow them to continue pretending not to understand) that the citizenry should, at a minimum, see which [undisclosed] SuperPAC bankrollers stand to gain – personally, and immensely – from the rise of their favored candidate?
In a weird, interesting way, Mitt “corporations are people” Romney got this issue right . . . at least partly, and in the most significant aspect: When a corporation (the mask behind which persons hide) buys undue idea-influence, it is the persons in the boardroom, and behind the mask, who gain. True, a President Gingrich, Romney or Sanctimonium wouldn’t merely bestow economic benefits on his supporters, and many an “issue ad” concerns non-economic matters (again, not the customary province of the cliché “bribe”). But we have reason to believe that the Founders were educated, articulate persons, and all evidence points to the truth of that. Surely they intended that all national matters of import be decided on the basis of informed debate, not circus posters or carnival barkers.
A business incorporates primarily to shield its principals from liability. The legitimacy and desirability of this has been debated by others, in other forums. For the moment, it doesn’t seem too much to ask that, if corporations are to be allowed unlimited political spending, the persons behind them be expected (required) to have the integrity to identify themselves, and take responsibility (if not credit) for the content of their harangues and half-truths.
It is not even about graft, or the mere outcome of a single election. The post-Citizens United world is just a moderate escalation of a trend already in place: Easily-digested hyperbole displacing genuine fact-based discourse and critical thinking. It is a world in which Truth itself, already
under assault, is down for the count. (A war on capitalism? On the rich? A war on religion? Oh, please . . . .)
We regulate and limit lobbying – i.e., influence-seeking done in secret. Why can we not regulate and limit the other ways in which the powerful seek influence, just because they are done (at least partly) in public? (To the extent that Citizens United and Super PACs permit money laundering, and hence the concealment of who is really behind donations and political advertising, the influence-seeking is not done in public.) The Constitution also permits the penalizing of lying. (Commercial “speech” can be so regulated; libel laws also place some limits on lying.) Interestingly, the Court will soon rule on the constitutionality of a law making it a crime to falsely claim to have received a military decoration. It will be interesting to see which kinds of lies this Court condones, and which not.
The Big Lie is called “big” for a reason. Repeated often enough, to a big enough audience, what once might have been thought of as too absurd to be taken seriously is now commonplace (and widely accepted). Obama is a Muslim. He’s not a U.S. citizen. Upholding the separation between church and state is a war on religion. Federal judges should be (can be) hauled before Congress to account for their unpopular opinions.
Like the worst of popular entertainment, seasonal political ads (like their always-in-season counterpart and moral equivalent, Fox “News”) provide the worst imaginable model for a budding new generation “Nanny state”? Protecting people who don’t need protecting, and who should just be left alone to sort out the facts for themselves? Well, sure. But first, let’s have a few facts for a change.
This crap pollutes and dilutes the entire information environment, and only fosters a growing collective cynicism and exhaustion. It encourages more of the lazy-minded, deplorable “they all do it” and “they all lie” attitude, and unwillingness to exert the tremendous effort needed to sort out half-truths from the totally untrue. It promotes as legitimate the astoundingly common belief that opinions are fungible, and that one is just as good as another. This, I submit, is what Big Money buys more of. Just what we need. And yet, says the Citizens United majority confidently, confidence in our system is not, cannot be, undermined by any of this.
Indeed, money doesn’t talk; it swears.
Fixing all this is not likely any time soon. A citizenry averse to education, and with its collective head forever buried in one or another of its favorite devices, cannot understand its own complicity in The Way Things Are . . . and will, despite a few murmurs of protest, leave the powerful to their own devices
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Speaking of another current word-distraction:
There’s a timeworn joke in which the body parts, including the brain, argue about who should be boss. (The asshole plays a prominent role in the story.) A more refined authority, the late Alan Watts (the West’s prëeminent expositor of Zen, in plain English), might well have pointed out that no part can exist without the others. It’s certainly legitimate to say that the middle class creates all jobs . . . because they create almost all of the demand in an economy. No demand, nothing to produce. Nothing to produce, no jobs. No jobs, no money to buy things with. No money to buy things with, no demand. No demand, no jobs. “Labor creates all wealth”, some insist categorically (often by way of a bumper sticker).
The Romneys and Scott Walkers, who fetishize and lionize Business per se, insist that’s backwards. They fixate on “the job creators”, in a Creation Myth that not only gets it all wrong, but encourages us to waste still more valuable time. We’re all riding a whirlpool down the toilet, while the plumber and the lord of the mansion, who hired him, have a semantic debate. Chicken or the egg? Who cares? You’re both right. You’re both wrong. At least, Business-worshipers, please don’t kill the goose that lays your golden eggs – all the poor saps who have to work at those many jobs you claim you can “create”, and which are your golden ticket to the power you seek.
Anyway, there’s plenty of reason to believe that nothing we do can save us from the death spiral we’re in. The Larger Forces at work care nothing about who’s in the White House, whether the wealthiest pay their “fair share”, whether we buy this pair of crappy shoes made in China or that pair of crappy shoes made in China. Or the toaster made in China. Or the ersatz china made in China.
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While the obsession of Right politicians is Business, the obsession of Business has long been “branding”. If we no longer make very much, then apparently it will suffice if we pretend to make things. Financial services or plans, even merely accounts, are now financial “products”. Banks are now “stores”. Nike is now less of a company that sells things than it is a company that sells the idea that is “Nike” – i.e., the brand itself. (Want to make your company immortal and indispensible? Sell the brand. The product itself – and especially the uniqueness, quality or desirability of the product – are secondary.) Can we not, at the very least, live our lives with some shred of dignity? Or shall we submit to the complete corporatization of everything, every idea, every paradigm (regardless of where those corporations are headquartered)? You, dear consumer (especially you, yeah you, the moron who walks around in garments distinguished in no way at all except that they bear a famous logo), have been branded. Literally. The product is you.
In a democracy, we are free to determine many things for ourselves. Everything. That includes whether, and to what extent, we ought to leave the present concept of the corporation in place. We are free to determine whether, and to what extent, such a creature of the law ought to include shields from liability (for shareholders, officers, or both). The “B” Corporation is a move in the direction away from skewing the equation entirely toward profit, to the exclusion of accountability. Further moves will, of course, be vigorously challenged by those with the most to lose. In places like Wisconsin, they will say we’ll be viewed as no longer “open for business”. At the national level, they will say that we can’t compete with the rest of the world with one hand tied behind our back (or other clichés; pick your favorite). We must ask: If we’ve destroyed ourselves in the meantime, morally and financially, what is there left to compete with? What is there left to compete for?
Those with the most to lose will also stand in the way of needed improvements in public education – the non-negotiable prerequisite for informed changes in a free society.
We’ve already had a critical, fateful election decided by angry mobs. We are not that far removed from the rabid GOP-bots trying to storm the offices of Miami-DadeCounty election officials during the 2000 Bush-Gore recounts. Those headlines are as fresh as yesterday’s candidate pronouncements, such as Gingrich’s proposal that judges be hauled before Congress to explain themselves. Newt Gingrich is the man who, for all intents and purposes, wants to let angry mobs dictate policy to our judiciary. (His half-serious proposal to, in effect, subject all distasteful court decisions to referendum, and to the latest prevailing winds, is the imbecile bastard offspring of the entire sorry practice of electing judges (a practice that’s unfortunately all too common in all too many states). No less a light than Sandra Day O’Connor has been outspoken on the undesirability of this . . . and on the kind of buying of public policy that Citizens United might really give us, in the context of judicial campaigns.)
Angry mobs are impatient mobs. The impatient spend little time thinking about the nuances of challenging social and political problems. They seek the shortest route to their preconceived destinations and foregone conclusions. Slogans and half-truths get them there; reasoned, fact-based debate does not.
Angry mobs controlling this nation’s future? Angry mobs incited by powerful opinion-manipulators? Is that what we want?
Not to worry, though . . . for, you see,
“Angry mobs are people, my friend.”
Text and composites © 2012 JDG, JD