Wisconsin should support clarification of the rights of corporate “persons,” which have been widely abused in political (among many other) affairs. It should join with other states to either to amend the US Constitution by declaring rights there to adhere only to real (organic) persons – thus removing corporate “personhood” entirely – or by overturning Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and other Court-ordered destruction of political equality going back to Buckley v. Valeo (1976).
What’s the Problem Addressed?
The corporate form of business – with its limited liability for investors, free transfer of ownership shares, and eternal lifespan – is an extremely useful way to mobilize private capital for social ends. But no corporation is a real, living, organic person, of the sort understood by our founders as the basis of the radical idea that persons, as equal citizens, could rule themselves. Giving corporations some of the rights of such person, as we have done since the late 19th century, is always dangerous to our democracy; giving them all rights in our political affairs is a disaster. This has long been recognized in the US. The early 20th century Tilden Act forbade corporate contributions to elections, for the very good reason that the vast wealth of corporations, brought to bear on framing the choice of government, would overwhelm the voice of ordinary citizen persons. In Citizens United v. FEC (2010), however, divided Supreme Court overturned this longstanding prohibition and unleashed a massive wrecking ball—the full weight of private corporate wealth—on the equality of citizens in choosing their government. Citizens United had doctrinal antecedents. Since Buckley v. Valeo, the Court has held that money for elections deserves the protection afforded speech, even if that destroys political equality. Accepting this new status quo eliminates any hope of a real democracy.
How OWR Proposal Addresses It
To return the needed limitations on corporate political speech, we must either abolish corporate personhood or overturn the Court’s pernicious reading of the First Amendment since Buckley. The latter would, more affirmatively, provide a constitutional foundation for public funding of elections as a basic democratic right.
Who’s Already Doing This?
Constitutional amendments require super-majorities to be enacted, but they can start from Congress or the states.1 Congress has begun to act, in both the Senate2 and the House.3 And many states, with Vermont being the first, have called for a limited convention to reverse Citizens United.4
Why Not Wisconsin?
Wisconsin should take a stand in curbing corporate abuse of our election system, or the broader democracy. There are resolutions already introduced in both the Assembly and Senate to join other states in calling for a limited national convention to overturn Citizens United by beginning the advisory referendum process here,5 and even talk of a resolution going full-bore at corporate personhood. None has any hope of passage in this legislature, but calling for hearings on the issue and some sort of vote would be good for Wisconsin’s democracy. We should, at the minimum, show that some of our elected leaders oppose the wholesale sale of democracy to private corporations, and force those who welcome corporate domination to go on the record as antidemocratic sellouts.