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Corporations Aren't People

As we celebrate the Fourth, isn't it time to think about spreading some democracy here at home? Here's a not-so-modest proposal to start: abolish the concept of corporate 'personhood.'
 
 
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Largely lost amid last week's Supreme Court rulings limiting President Bush's imperial powers and upholding Texas Republicans' 2003 gerrymandering was a decision that put the kibosh on Vermont's campaign finance and spending laws -- the strictest in the nation by far.

The justices, in a 6-3 decision, ruled that the limits were unconstitutional according to the standard set out in the landmark 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo, which held that spending millions of dollars to get elected is a protected form of political speech.

The ruling itself was hardly earthshattering; Vermont's spending limits may well have been too onerous and even some of the liberal justices expressed concern that the tight caps gave incumbents an unfair advantage. The court largely maintained the legal status quo around an issue that's long been the subject of heated debate.

But the decision reveals yet again how deeply entrenched the role of big money is in the American political system. Over the last 150 years, bizarre legal doctrines have developed that have effectively codified the power of special interests. In addition to the idea inBuckley that "money equals speech," we've been saddled with the Orwellian concept of " corporate personhood."

"Corporate personhood" gives corporations -- entirely artificial entities created by the state -- the same individual rights that the framers fought and died to secure for flesh-and-blood citizens (or at least for white male property holders, but you get the idea). The doctrine started in England reasonably enough; it was only by considering corporations "persons" that they could be taken to court and sued. But during the 19th century, the Robber Barons and a few corrupt jurists deep in their pockets took the concept to a whole new level. After the Civil War, while many of those same interests were fighting to keep African-Americans from being enfranchised, the doctrine took on new weight -- the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment was extended to corporations, and Thomas Jefferson slowly rolled over in his grave. The trend of granting more and more rights to corporations continues today. (A detailed discussion of how this all developed can be found here.)

As long as these ideas are embedded in our legal system, talk of cleaning up government -- of campaign finance and lobby reform -- are just that: talk. On these fundamental issues of democratic participation, incremental reform is a road leading nowhere.

Which is why we need bold, populist ideas for real structural reform. I say let's rip a page from Karl Rove's Scorched-Earth Politics for Dummies and offer a progressive constitutional amendment that would end this madness once and for all.

That could be as simple as a one-line amendment that rolls back Buckley by explicitly stating that regulating the amount of money donated to campaigns or setting limits on what candidates spend on advertising isn't the same as putting limits on political speech.

But I think something even bolder is in order. I think it's time for a Defense of Human Citizenship Amendment -- language that would strip the "personhood" from corporations and give reformers a fighting chance to establish a true democracy in the United States.

It should be as brief and straightforward as the Republicans' gay marriage amendment:

SECTION 1. Citizenship in the United States shall be conferred only on human beings. Neither this Constitution nor the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that citizenship or the legal incidents thereof be granted to corporations, partnerships, proprietorships or trusts.

This would be great policy if enacted, and great politics regardless of whether it were to become law. A failing campaign to restore human citizenship would bring what has long been a contentious debate in legal and public policy circles into the mainstream. It would be the left's turn to decry "judicial activism" of the most pernicious kind, and it would be a valuable opportunity for some real civic education for the broader electorate. We need that; polls show that a majority of voters feel that corporations have too much influence over the political realm, but most Americans don't understand the mechanisms with which they maintain and wield that power.

It's an approach that might take a while to gain traction. But think about what the right has been able to accomplish with the constitutional amendments they push to ban flag burning or gay marriage. They've taken a wonky narrative about "judicial tyranny" which, on its face, is a ludicrously bad political argument, and they've made it into a hot-button issue.

They did that with 25 years of Federalist Society conferences and Wall Street Journal op-eds, and the result is that a point of contention between legal scholars became a central campaign line for the reelection of George W. Bush.

The Bush team offered up his divisive-but-popular federal "marriage amendment" during the 2004 campaign, even though it had no chance of actually passing. But on the state level, similar measures passed 18 times, thanks always to a predictable spike in Republican turnout -- big turnouts that helped Bush win a second term.

(Virginia's Senate recently voted to put a marriage amendment on the ballot, and conservative lawmakers in Maryland are trying to do the same in time for the November election in an attempt to boost Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich's re-election prospects.)

Defending human citizenship is a chance to excite the progressive base in the same way that the right's wedge-issue amendments rally their fundamentalist ground troops time and time again.

There's nothing new about turning your opponents' best tactics against them. A demoralized right did it when they were trying to regroup after the pummeling Barry Goldwater, their Golden Boy, took in his landslide election loss in 1964. They looked to the then dominant Democratic coalition for a clue as to how to turn it around.

Paul Weyrich, founder of the Free Congress Foundation, reminisced about those heady days:

"… study and application of your opposition's best practices can spur greater innovation and success. … Back in the 1970s … we stressed the importance of grass-roots organizing. We took a page from organized labor's playbook, modified it to fit our constituency and purposes, and started winning primaries and elections."

Constitutional amendments that fire up the Republican base are among the Rovian right's "best practices," and there's no reason progressives can't emulate them.

We hear all the time that there's a dearth of big ideas on the left. Here's one that would have a profound impact on a broken political system. Some smaller groups have been lobbying for this kind of reform for years -- it's time for someone in the progressive establishment to pick it up and run with it.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.