corporations

Citizens United--An Amendment

Words, whether spoken or written, are our primary means of communication. For this reason, even as words evolve, it is essential that we agree on their meaning. No one is above the law of definition. The alternative is an inability to communicate with reason, and confusion more disruptive than Babel.

At the Iowa State Fair on August 11, 2011, Mitt Romney made his now infamous declaration: “corporations are people, my friend.” That statement simply does not pass muster. Romney was roundly
ridiculed by citizens in the crowd. In news reports, members of the media chimed in. However, few people took the time to analyze the danger not only of his idea, but also his misuse of language.

In the Declaration of Independence, we read the following: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men
(sic) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights….” Whether or not one believes in God, the point here is that people, not corporations, are so endowed.

The problem is that Romney equivocates on definition and defies the conventions of logic, for a corporation exists only as a legal entity. As such, its rights and obligations do not accrue naturally, as they do with persons. It is true that a corporation is made up of individuals, but collectively it is not a person.

On the one hand, it is easy to see why Romney thinks corporations are people. He has never had to work a real job in the real world. Almost all of his wealth is derived from sitting in boardrooms and deciding which companies are most attractive for the “purchase, dismantle, sell and workers-be-damned” model of business.

On the other hand, Romney is not entirely to blame. He is not known for original thought, and in this case his idea emanates from Supreme Court and its
Citizens United decision of 2010. Prior to that decision, most rational persons would never have dreamed of calling corporations people. But once one accepted definition is dismissed, it is easy to alter the meaning of other words as well. All of a sudden, money is defined as speech.

I have a friend who suggested the Supreme Court did not anticipate that their decision would undam the flood of corporate money that has so corrupted the current political season. I am a little more cynical. And for good reason. Even if one were to grant a certain naiveté in the
Citizens United case, the Court revealed its true colors this past June by doubling down in another 5-4 decision, the American Tradition Partnership case. In that decision, the court struck down a century-old Montana campaign finance law that prevented corporations from spending money on political campaigns. This may be a terribly disturbing image, but the truth is that the Supreme Court essentially disrobed and flashed American society.

Like elected officials, the Justices are entrusted with protecting the Constitution. As the final arbiter of law, the Supreme Court’s obligation transcends even that of the President and the Congress. What recourse does society have when the Court, itself, tramples the Constitution and substitutes chaos for the rule of law?

The
Citizens United decision necessitates a constitutional amendment. This is a remedy that I recommend with great reluctance. There is always a danger that fanciful ideas rooted in unrestricted emotion might make their way into constitutional law, as happened with the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting alcohol. To its credit, the United States has passed only twenty six amendments, one of which, the twenty-first, was passed to reverse the foolishness of the eighteenth.

A constitution that is amended too frequently becomes a useless document. Still, a constitution is comprised of words, and the meaning of those words matters. Corporations are not people and money is not speech. If integrity is to be restored to the electoral process, the United States needs a twenty-seventh Amendment that overturns the Citizens United decision.
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