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The Spirit of Philadelphia

With the Democracy Spring march launching from Philadelphia today, it is worth reflecting on that notion, juxtaposed against the perverse rationale of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.
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Preamble to American Constitution
Preamble to American Constitution

We the People.

With that radical phrase, the U.S. Constitution's drafters launched a project based on popular sovereignty. A project beset by all kinds of contradictions - including slavery and denial of equal rights to women - but a bold statement nonetheless that it is the people, not a king or some feudal class, that constitutes the government.

With the Democracy Spring march launching from Philadelphia today, it is worth reflecting on that notion, juxtaposed against the perverse rationale of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

Citizens United held that it is unconstitutional for speech-related rules to distinguish between different speakers. Justice Kennedy's majority opinion waxed eloquently about the ways in which speech restrictions injure the disadvantaged in society: "By taking the right to speak from some and giving it to others, the Government deprives the disadvantaged person or class of the right to use speech to strive to establish worth, standing, and respect for the speaker's voice."

Remarkably, the "disadvantaged" class of which Justice Kennedy spoke was the corporate class! (Hence the notion that Citizens United reflects the view colloquially described as "corporations are people.")

It takes quite fulsome intellectual gymnastics to characterize the corporate sector as a discriminated-against minority. As Justice Stevens wrote in his eloquent dissent, the Citizens United majority "elided" the issue.

Not only do corporations wield an immense degree of political power, they do not have the attributes of persons necessitating protection from "discrimination."

The Citizens United majority ignored obvious distinctions that justify treating companies different than real, live human beings. For example:

  • Corporations do not breathe, drink, or eat -- meaning they have no human-like interest in clean air, clean water, and safe food. (To be sure, it may be in the business interest of certain companies, for example, to sell safe and healthy food, but that is precisely the point. Any such interest is derivative of their overriding interest in profit maximization, which is qualitatively different than the interests of humans.)
  • Corporations have perpetual life and do not get sick -- meaning they have no human-like interest in ensuring the availability of affordable, quality healthcare; avoiding injury; or preventing illness.
  • Corporations have no conscience, feelings, belief, capacity to love, or concern for community -- meaning they do not have human-like interests in family, community, and society.
  • Corporations cannot be imprisoned and have no sense of shame -- meaning they are immune to key forms of punishment and social sanction.
Further, corporations have many superhuman powers: the ability to be in more than one place simultaneously, combine, split apart, and create unlimited numbers of progeny (subsidiaries).

Most crucially, corporations are driven by a single objective: pursuit of profit. And to that end, they agglomerate unparalleled amounts of wealth.

These special attributes give them the ability to exercise social, political, and economic power vastly disproportionate to humans, and to exercise that power to advance a narrow purpose that conflicts with the rich set of human motivations.

In 1789, We the People of the United States evinced a wisdom that eluded the Citizens United majority, declaring that we were establishing a constitution "in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

How noble appear those words as against the sophistry of Citizens United.

Today, a hardy band of marchers leave Philadelphia to bring to Washington, D.C. the noble spirit of the constitution. They kick off two weeks of democracy mobilizations aimed at building a movement powerful enough to, once again, establish popular sovereignty. To overturn Citizens United and insist that our government belongs to, and must serve, We the People, not We the Corporations.

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