In response to the recent one year anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which overturned bans on corporate cash in elections, many friends on the progressive side of the aisle are drawing attention to this issue, talking about the impact in the 2010 elections, and discussing solutions to the problem. I promise to do none of those things here.
If you're reading this article, you probably already know most of the story of Citizens United and know that it's a bad thing for our democracy. The question is how to talk about Citizens United in a way that convinces other people to realize this too. So, a few fellow message gurus, wordsmiths, and myself put our heads together and here's what we came up with.
1. The Supremes Got It Wrong on Citizens United -- America v. Corporate Goliaths
The conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court argued in this case that corporate goliaths have a Constitutional right to spend unlimited money in our elections. Here's why they are wrong:
Money is property, not speech. Corporations are property, not citizens. Citizens have voting rights, property rights, and free speech rights. Property has none of these.
This is the same court that infamously declared in 2000's Bush v. Gore that individual citizens arenot guaranteed the right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. When our government defends the rights of corporate goliaths to influence elections but derides the rights of everyday Americans to vote in them, something is rotten in the state of democracy.
If money is speech and corporations are citizens, then it is not long before government becomes the exclusive property of well-funded corporations. Our government is not a thing to be owned, except by the people who constitute it -- that is the definition of self-determination.
We, the people, must get private money out of our public elections.
2. Citizens United Turns Elections Into Auctions
We all know there's already too much money in elections as it is, but Citizens United changes the law so that even more money pours into the process, which essentially means that elections go to the highest bidder. That's not democracy; I don't know what it's called, but it ain't democracy.
Companies are built to make money, and the government is how we make laws. In a capitalist democracy, we need each side of that equation to stay in their lane. Buying elections should be just as illegal as nationalizing industries.
Between a corporations' responsibility to make money and serve the bottom line and an elected officials' oath to uphold the Constitution and serve the public interest, there is a conflict of interest. Elections should not be a part of some corporations' investment portfolio; elections should be how we choose leaders in our country by voting.
When politicians are bought at auction rather than chosen by election, we've lost a lot of what it means to live in a free democracy.
3. Buying Votes Should Be Illegal
Whether buying bulk or by the vote, buying votes is and should be illegal. We prevent the purchasing of votes in order to keep those with vast amounts of money from exercising improper influence upon the government. This also happens to be why we prohibit bribery and graft.
These existing and obvious laws show that we all know those with wealth may attempt, and have in the past attempted, to purchase elections and votes. We all know that is wrong and against the law.
Under Citizens United, it is still a felony to buy a single vote but it's perfectly legal to buy a whole election. If you think that is democracy, then you're doing it wrong.
Is Citizens United simply a matter of free speech? No, some speech is illegal and should be. Libel, slander, verbal assault, hate speech, blackmail, bribery, and that which encourages 'imminent lawless action' are all forms of speech subject to prohibition by law. Corruption through the influence of corporate contributions to political campaigns should be added to this list of villainy.
After all, buying votes at the ballot box and in Congress should be illegal.
And for the moral of the story:
It's time we return to government of, by, and for the people, not government of, bought, and paid for by special interests. If big businesses want to invest in our government, let them pay their fair share of taxes rather than paying for politicians who'll write them special tax breaks.
I hope some of these talking points can be put to good use when debating with your swing-voting neighbor who has no idea what "corporate personhood" means or when speaking to your gadsen-flag waving Uncle back home who happens to hate all this money in politics too.
So, did I keep my promise? Well, 2-out-of-3 ain't bad.
Many thanks to John Neffinger of KNP Communications & Drew Westen of Westen Strategies for contributing to my thoughts on this very important issue.