On Friday, protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court in Washington, and many other federal courthouses across the US. The "Occupy the Courts" demonstration was a challenge to the Citizens United decision, handed down on 20 January 2010, that altered the political landscape with its ruling on campaign finance.
The Occupy revolt against social and economic inequality, which began in New York back in September, has faced criticism for not having an agenda for change. These rallies outside federal courts, allied with the growing campaign in mainstream liberal circles for a constitutional amendment to nullify the impact of Citizens United, suggest that these two different groups may have found an issue that can temporarily unite them heading into the Presidential election.
If you had attended one of those protests on Friday, you might have seen skits denouncing the granting of "personhood rights" to corporations for their election spending. You might have heard a rendition of "The Personhood Song" by Jan Edwards of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Sung to the tune of "This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie, the chorus declares:
I am a person, you are a person, br>
With flesh and blood and with mind and conscience. br>
The corporation is not a person. br>
That word belongs to you and me.
This theme is the starting point for Sen. Bernie Sanders' Saving American Democracy Amendment to the Constitution:
Corporations are not persons with constitutional rights equal to real people. br>
Corporations are subject to regulation by the people. br>
Corporations may not make campaign contributions or any election expenditures. br>
Congress and states have the power to regulate campaign finances
The idea of corporations possessing the same Constitutional rights as persons has a long and convoluted history in the United States, dating back to Dartmouth College v. Woodward in the Supreme Court case in 1819. But it has risen to prominence since Citizens United as the Court ruled that corporations hold a First Amendment right to free speech, and that political spending is protected –-- following Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 –-- by the First Amendment.
That ruling is being challenged, especially at the state and local level. The Montana Supreme Court, on 30 December, disagreed with the interpretation of the rights of corporations, as it upheld the state's Corrupt Practices Act of 1912 which prohibits corporations from spending money on state elections. The Montana decision is likely to be struck down by the Supreme Court, but there is a interesting twist --- one of the judges who voted against the ruling did so to protest that outcome:
Justice James C. Nelson wrote a 44-page dissenting opinion (more than half again as long as the majority opinion), and used broadsides of bitterness and sarcasm to denounce the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, even while concluding that it settled the First Amendment right of corporations to spend freely on politics, so state judges had no authority whatsoever to fail to apply it faithfully to state bans. He left no doubt that he was holding his nose, figuratively, as he wrote.
In another case involving state restrictions on corporations and campaign finance, Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit concurred with the majority opinion to uphold New York City's pay-to-play regulations, and took the opportunity to attack the reasoning of Citizens United: “Left unregulated, the distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth will garble the political debate.”
At the local level, the city councils of Los Angeles, Oakland, New York, Albany, Duluth and Boulder have all passed resolutions opposing Citizens United. A CBS News/New York Times survey this week showed that 67% of those polled --- including a majority of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents –-- wanted spending by outside groups to be limited by law.
One of the stories so far of the race for the Republican nomination has been the influence of these outside groups, especially their ability through "attack ads" to torpedo a rival's campaign. Restore Our Future, a Mitt Romney-aligned "Super PAC", did so with Newt Gingrich in Iowa, and the spending has continued into South Carolina, which votes today. In the last five days, Restore Our Future and Winning Our Future, a Super PAC supporting Gingrich, have spent more than $2 million between them on advertising.
These amounts will be dwarfed once the Republicans have nominated their candidate, and organisations like Karl Rove's American Crossroads roll out their campaign ads to defeat President Obama. :ast September, the president of Crossroads told iWatch News, part of the Center of Public Integrity, that they hoped to raise more than $240 million for the forthcoming elections. And despite Obama's stated objections to the role of Super PACs and to Citizens United, there are signs that he will turn a blind eye to outside groups campaigning on his behalf later this year.
All this means that the current discontent with the political influence of corporate money and that of wealthy individuals is certain to increase. That leads to the question: how will the opposition be expressed once the money really begins to flow come September and October?
The answer is that, if there was ever a time for an anti-establishment or anti-status quo third-party candidate to run, it is now. The last person to run a high-profile campaign challenging both parties was Ross Perot in 1992. The demographics behind his 19% of the popular vote make for interesting reading in an election year when Congress and the two parties are being handed their highest disapproval ratings on record.
In 1992, Perot's support was split into 20% self-described liberals, 27% conservatives, and 53% moderates. Most of these supporters were from the middle-class. In the present economy, that middle class of the United States is falling behind the gains of the wealthy, and where those gains are seen as being protected by special interests influencing easily-swayed legislators of both parties in Washington.
Campaign finance reform would need to be the central plank of any third-party run. However, when you have judges in Montana and Occupiers outside the Supreme Court, you may have the issue that can unite Americans who feel that the two political parties are ignoring their concerns.
The campaign website of Ron Paul --- currently running a strong third in the Republican contests, but with almost no hope of winning the nomination --- does not put forth an official position on campaign finance and the candidate has given lukewarm support to the Citizens United ruling, arguing that it only gives corporations an equal say with that of media groups like the New York Times.
However, with only these general comments on the extent of media influence over elections to "modify", Paul could take a different path. Will he now seize the campaign finance reform issue in a Presidential run as an Independent candidate?