The Story of Citizens United v FEC: How we the people can reclaim our democracy.
February 21, 2011- We never expected to be writing an article with this title. Aren’t united citizens a good thing? Civil Rights movement? Egypt? Madison?
Yes, but that’s not the kind of people power we’re talking about here. What we want to fight is the disastrous 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United v Federal Election Commission (FEC) decision. Ironically, “Citizens United” is the name of a conservative advocacy group which receives corporate funding and works to promote increased rights for corporations. The Citizens United v. FEC case originally dealt with the question of whether or not airing Citizens United’s documentary about Hillary Clinton was an advocacy ad, and therefore subject to existing restrictions on election ads under the McCain-Feingold law.
Whether your passion is protecting the environment or creating green jobs or improving public education—or really any other issue on which corporate interests are blocking real solutions—this is your campaign too.But in a brazen act of judicial activism, the court decided to consider the much broader issue of corporate spending to influence elections, which wasn’t even presented in the original case. In a decision that stunned democracy advocates and trampled a number of campaign finance laws, a slim five-Justice majority ruled that corporations—including for-profit corporations—do indeed have a right to spend as much money as they want to elect or defeat candidates in our elections.
This decision effectively grants corporations the same First Amendment Free Speech protections granted to real live people.
The catch is that corporations obviously are not people. Someone get the Supreme Court a biology textbook! There are some really big, and really significant, differences. For starters, people are part of the biological system; we need clear air and water, a healthy environment, a stable climate to thrive. Corporations are legal entities, created by people, and have no such biological needs and thus no inherent reason to safeguard the environment.
People make decisions based on a constant balancing of many interests, including love for our families and communities, compassion, kindness, desire for a better world, as well as economic and material interests. Corporations don’t have families and communities, nor hearts with which to love them. As Justice Stevens said in his dissenting opinion, “corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts and no desires.” Instead, corporations—by both law and the demands of the market—are under enormous pressure to focus on one thing: maximizing profit.
Their single minded focus, plus their enormous scale, means it’s dangerous to invite them into our democracy. If corporations spend even a tiny percentage of their profits on influencing election outcomes, they can dwarf the contributions from real people, skewing election results to favor corporate interests, which aren’t always the same as the interests of workers, families, and the environment.
At the Story of Stuff Project, we have partnered with organizations working for solutions to issues as diverse as climate change, toxics in consumer products, and the wastefulness of bottled water. In every case, when we ask these experienced organizers what the biggest obstacles to progress are, the answer is the same: corporate influence in the political process.