Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The End of Democracy As We Know It? - Part 1

I’ve spent some time reading and thinking about the recent Supreme Court Decision involving Citizens United. I’m not one to typically give in to rash statements, but this does seem to put in place the mechanism for the almost complete control of our government by wealthy corporations. We already have a situation where Rupert Murdoch and his FOX network effectively set much of the strategy for the Republican Party. Alumni from Goldman Sachs have a dominating influence on Obama’s financial policy. And both parties are heavily influenced by corporate donations and lobbyist. This ruling enables the takeover to be complete.

The first shoe to drop was the end of the Fairness Doctrine. This Supreme Court decision was the other shoe. I don’t claim that corporations will completely decide who will win elections. Rather, in practice they will have more like a veto power over candidates they don’t like thanks to the ability to unleash tremendous negative advertising campaigns, and a similar veto power over legislation they don’t like. Special interest will now be in a position to effectively prevent any change that will negatively impact them, regardless of the long term benefits to society as a whole. The long term impacts of this are quite substantial as we enter a period of rapid changes in the global society.

If that isn’t troubling enough, consider this: The ruling apparently applies to foreign based corporations too. There’s some uncertainty over this, but my understanding is that foreign corporations can now spend unlimited amounts of money to influence American elections just like US based corporations.

What can be done to fix this situation? There is a lot of focus on creating a new constitutional amendment that will explicitly state that corporations are not people and do not share in the same rights as people. I fear this is a misguided effort to focus on. First, it will take many years and has only a small chance of actually passing in the end. More importantly though, I don’t think it will actually cause the changes people are hoping for. It is my understanding that the Supreme Court decision is not based on the view that corporations are people. Instead, it is based on the argument that people have the right to organize in groups and speak out on political issues, whether those groups are non-profit organizations, labor unions, or corporations.

The real problem here, and the one we need to address to fix things, is that concentrations of money can have a significant influence on our government process. The idea that very wealthy individuals can exercise excessive influence on our government is also a problem that tends to get overlooked. I’ll give some thoughts on possible ways to address this in my next post.