MANSKI: Supreme Court's decision creates an American crisis

February 13, 2010
Ben Manski

Unhinged. Absurd. Outrageous.

That's how you could describe the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in “Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.” Unfortunately, the decision was much, much worse than that.

How much worse?

You might have some idea if you've ever found yourself facing foreclosure on your home; or worked at a company that was downsizing and laying people off; or enrolled in a college where the tuition keeps doubling; or faced salary freezes year after year, even while the cost of living rises.

Most of us know how those things feel. It's the feeling of losing control over your destiny.

Get used to that feeling. It has just become what it feels like to be a citizen of the United States of America.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy asserted that, “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.”

The “disadvantaged person” Kennedy referred to is the corporation. In law, this means that corporations now enjoy constitutional protections against government regulation.

Like people.

Yes, that's crazy.

Justice John Paul Stevens certainly thought the majority decision was perverse, correctly observing in his dissent that “corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires … (and) are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”

But the decision is worse than perverse. Unless corrected, it is the final end of the American experiment in self-government.

Corporations aren’t private entities and they certainly aren’t people. They consolidate wealth. The largest among them are giants in comparison to our state and local governments.

For these reasons, throughout U.S. history, beginning especially with the American Revolution, the public has pressed the government to keep corporations under control.

The court's judicial activism in “Citizens United” may have put an end to that control. If corporations are persons protected by the Constitution, decades of rules protecting consumers from unsafe working conditions, unsafe products, harmful pollution, and other ills are very likely to be declared unconstitutional by the federal courts.

So much for laws enacted to “promote the general welfare” and the will of “We the People.”

Throughout its history, the Supreme Court has often been on the wrong side of American democracy.

It ruled that free states had to return fugitives from slavery to the South, and that African-Americans weren’t fully human beings. It decided that women weren’t people for the purposes of the Constitution. It protected segregation.

It defended the use of concentration camps for Japanese Americans and upheld the suspension of habeas corpus. It handed nearly all war powers to the executive branch.

It decided that U.S. citizens have no constitutional right to vote, and ignored both precedent and the actual vote in deciding several presidential elections to its own liking.

In each case, the court’s decision unleashed a storm. And in each case, Americans responded as you’d expect from freeborn people. This time is proving no different.

Within a few days of the ruling in “Citizens United,” over 50,000 Americans from across the country launched — a movement to renew the Constitution with a series of democracy amendments, beginning, first and foremost, with ending the reign of the corporation.

Constitutional amendments don't come easy. But neither is it easy to live in a country whose destiny is owned and controlled by a few. These are the times that try people’s souls. This is an American crisis.

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Ben Manski is executive director of the Liberty Tree Foundation, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow and a member of the executive committee of Move to Amend: The Campaign to Legalize Democracy.