Does Big Money Control Our Elections?

May 12, 2011

- See all 39 of my articles


Before I jump into this month’s article, I just want to talk about an interesting comment I heard on the radio the other day regarding President Obama ordering the raid which killed Osama Bin Laden.  In certain right-wing circles people are criticizing both the media and president himself;  the media for giving Obama too much credit and Obama himself for taking too much credit.  We all know about this, there are plenty of conservatives out there that will never, ever give a Democrat credit for anything.  Well, the radio commentator threw a little devil’s advocate out there – what if the raid was a failure, both helicopters crashed, a few dozen Americans got killed and Bin Laden got away, who would get the blame?  No doubt in my mind that every last Republican out there would be calling for impeachment for such a bad decision by Obama if that had happened.

One way or the other, people.  You can’t have it both ways.  “The buck stops here” also means that the person at the top gets some credit when things go right, not just gets the blame when things go wrong.

Ok, on to your regularly scheduled dose of liberal-leaning anti-corporatist hate…

I want to set up a little imaginary scenario for you.  Picture your child, in 4th grade.  I know not all of you have kids, but try to play along.  Well your child’s school is having elections for class representative to the student committee.  It’s a pretty big deal to the kids and each class ends up with two children who run off against each other election style for who gets voted representative.  Your child is one of the two, and part of their “campaign” is making some election posters to put up around the school.  You spend a lot of time helping your kid on the computer making up a few really nice posters and researching an issue or two that they can run on.  You go in to school to help your child put up the posters and watch the debate against the other candidate and the first thing you notice … the other candidate has some amazingly high-quality posters!  They’re glossy, full of color.  Clearly professionally done, and probably very expensive.  There’s a tiny disclaimer in one bottom corner of each poster:  “This poster was paid for by the 5th grade volleyball team.”

You’re stunned.  These posters are up all over the place, dozens of them.  You wonder just how something like this can happen, and make your way to your child’s classroom to watch the debate.  The debate is more or less a tie, but your school lets other kids speak on behalf of whoever they want.  Dozens of other children get up and spread blatant lies about your kid;  “I saw Chris kick a dog.”   “I saw Chris cheat on a test!”  Your child tries denounce these lies, but is told by the teacher that they had their time to speak.  Of course, after all that, your kid loses the election and doesn’t get to be class representative.

That sounds … wrong.  Far-fetched.  Un-American.  You try to argue, but you’re told that everything went according to the rules.

It’s also pretty close to what can happen here in the USA, thanks to the way elections work and 2 key rulings, one of them by the Supreme Court.

Back in January of 2010 the Supreme Court decided in “Citizens United v Federal Election Commission” that there can be no caps on the amount of corporate money spent on political advertising.  That means if Rupert Murdoch or Michael Moore wanted to go and spent millions against their obvious targets, they could.  Heck, if they had the money to blow they could spend billions, and none of it would be subject to campaign finance rules.  The only provision?  There has to be a disclaimer.  Of course, you could get the fast-talk guy from the Micro Machines commercials to read a paragraph of disclaimer in 2 seconds at the end of the commercial so the average Joe doesn’t even process it.

There was another, lesser-known court case in the Florida Court of Appeals back in 2003 that can directly affect the political atmosphere in this country.  News organizations don’t have to tell the truth.  In fact, in that case the Florida Court of Appeals said that, specifically, Fox News (and by extension all news organizations) has a first amendment right to lie.  Yup, that bastion of “fair and balanced” actually fought a case to appeals court saying they can lie if they want.  As the article says, I don’t know of any other news organization that has done this so matter-of-factly.

No combine those two things … you have a first amendment right to lie, even if you’re a news organization, and corporations can spend as much money as they want as long as there is a tiny disclaimer.  We’ve already seen something similar – remember the 2004 presidential campaign “swiftboating“?  Essentially a group of Viet Nam war vets, some who never even served with John Kerry, said he was a horrible commander, his military honors were vastly overstate, and a few even went as far as saying the Navy’s records didn’t tell the truth.  There was a lot of media attention on that, but the ads still ran.  Remember how close that election was?  The Supreme Court decided it, and literally a few thousand votes could have made John Kerry president.  What if it was a few thousand people who voted for Dubya who saw those ads but didn’t see any media coverage of how they were practically lies?  That’s right, a group of corporate funded people -most of whom barely knew John Kerry and some of whom lied- decided a US election.

It’s time we take our politics back.  Every citizen has a vote already, why do giant corporations making billions in profit and sometimes not paying back any in taxes get such a strong voice?  According to US law now the Russian megacorp Gazprom or some Dubai casino could spend a billion dollars on a series of political television commercials and not even tell the truth.  Do we really want the USA standing for corporate control over the individual voice?

Time To Reign In Corporations

September 9, 2010

- See all 39 of my articles


Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility.

-Ambrose Bierce

When I hear the phrase “we the people” I think of your average Joe Citizen. I think of people down on their luck in the inner city, struggling to make ends meet. I think of a guy living in Westchester county with an acre of land and a beautifully manicured lawn. I don’t think of Exxon. Or Pfizer. Or Halliburton. Strangely enough, though, the Supreme Court of the United States thinks of those corporations – all corporations, really – in the same category as “we the people.”

Earlier this year in January with the ruling of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, when the John Roberts led supreme court ruled that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts could not be limited under the First Amendment. This ruling was absolutely unprecedented, but was yet another small step in giving corporations power at the expense of the people. This was an absolutely partisan ruling that struck down the previous bi-partisan McCain-Feingold act that prohibited all corporations from broadcasting “electioneering communications.” In very simple terms the Supreme Court ruled that anyone is essentially “an individual” in terms of campaign donations and political broadcasts. The First Amendment, one of the few things that still separated people from corporations, was now declared by the majority opinion (5-4 almost strictly along party lines) to apply to corporations too.

Since that ruling any group whatsoever can now spend any amount of money on political advertisements that they so wish and do so in a fashion that allows them to obfuscate where the money is coming from. Combine this with the Florida court ruling that says media agencies – even ones specifically devoted toward broadcasting “the news” – are allowed to lie under the first amendment, and you have an environment perfectly set to have corporate shills and puppets running our country.

Not that they don’t already.

One of my favorite authors, William Gibson, often writes about a dystopian future where corporations rule the world by propping up cardboard cutout governments that are technically legal but amount to nothing. In these books no one thinks twice about the fact that these corporations field standing armies, assassinate anyone they deem a threat, and produce products that are known to be harmful to humans simply because they make a profit. We’re not too far from that today. This country was originally set up to be run for the people by the people – a vote by the masses would ensure the brightest would lead this country and have only the best interests in mind for the people. There already are politicians associated with certain high-power corporate entities. Joe Lieberman is widely known for being the senator from Etna, not Connecticut. The Cheney administration seemed to have the best interests of Haliburton and the military-industrial complex in mind rather than those of the country. Now that donation money can flow even more freely you’re going to see a lot more political attack ads against people the corporations don’t want in power and the people they do want in power winning more offices.

What’s one of the biggest ways a corporation gains money and power? At your expense. When Major League Baseball’s Expos were shown to be floundering economically it was decided by a consortium of MLB owners to move the team. They already had the buyer picked out, and through tax breaks, outright grants, and local government donations the Lerner Group effectively purchased the team for no money. Based on the value of the Nationals compared to the Expos it can even be argued that they were paid to take the team. Taxpayers in DC were told a stadium would boost income and revenue for the local economy, they were repeatedly told a popular lie the money would “trickle down.” from the rich to the poor. Yet here we are years later and the income gap between the poor and rich has widened, even more so in Washington DC than other areas.  [Read David Cay Johnston’s book A Free Lunch for more background on the Nationals sale].

In the 1940’s, corporations typically paid around 33% of our government’s tax income. This had failed to 15 percent in the 1990s. On the flip side, the individual tax burden has risen from 44% to over 70% in that same time frame. Corporations feel no remorse, feel no pain, don’t age, don’t worry about the environment, don’t care about the quality of food, and have only one goal: to gain as much money as possible for the few that run it. Corporations are considered people and have all those advantages, yet they don’t have the built-in regulation that most people have: a conscience. A sense of what is right and wrong. How many times can you think of a corporate disaster that cost lives or greatly damaged lives where before any government interaction that corporation jumped to do the right thing and fixed their damage. I honestly can’t think of any. Now how many times can you think of where the reverse happened, where a corporation caused massage damage or death and then dragged their feet doing the right thing and in the end never did make things whole? The Deep Horizon oil spill, the Exxon Valdez, Toyota’s acceleration/brake problem, Union Carbide’s Bopa disaster. In each of those situations I clearly remember more effort and possibly more money going into telling us they were working on fixing the problem than actually fixing the problem.

Think of how scary a world we already live in, in terms of corporate power.

Now think that the vast majority of politicians get the vast majority of their money from corporations with the express intent that the money given is to sway political decisions in corporate favor.

William Gibson, we’re not far from the ethics of Neuromancer while still being pretty far away from the technology that makes that world a wonder. I’d call that a horror book.