Amending the Constitution to Limit Corporate Power
This is adapted from an article by Sharon Delgado published in Response Magazine, May 2012.
The prophet Jeremiah warned the people of Judah against “worshiping the works of their own hands.” (Jeremiah 1: 16-17) This warning takes on new importance today, when global corporations, the works of our own hands, have become like gods. We have invested these human inventions with so much power that they are now among the world’s richest and most powerful actors, dominating cultures, economies, and governments. When faced with such massive concentrations of wealth and institutional power, we limited human beings may feel that our efforts are futile. But as people of faith we are called to reject idolatry, fatalism, and injustice, and move in a direction of healing and grace.
Polls show that a majority of people in the United States believe that large corporations have too much power and influence in government. Various solutions to this problem have been suggested. One proposal that is gaining momentum is a constitutional amendment that would abolish corporate personhood and thereby limit the power of corporations to influence elections.
Since the late 19th century Supreme Court rulings have bestowed and gradually expanded the rights of corporations as “persons” under the law. For-profit corporations are state-created vehicles for producing wealth for their stockholders, but the “legal fiction” of corporate personhood gives them constitutional rights originally designed for human beings. This creates a huge power imbalance on the political playing field. Transnational corporations can marshal resources far beyond those of most people. They can relocate to anywhere, change nationalities, span continents, and exist in many places simultaneously. Their only conscience is the bottom line. Criminal corporations can pay token fines and still do business; there are no corporate three strikes laws and they cannot go to jail because they are non-corporeal. Corporations have no natural death—they can span centuries. For these and other reasons, “corporate persons” have a huge political advantage over limited human beings.
In 2010, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission decision worsened this power imbalance by ruling that corporations could pour unlimited funds into election campaigns. Following that ruling, many provisions of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act and campaign finance laws in many states were overturned.
The Citizens United decision has been described as “money equals speech.” In the case of corporations, corporate “speech” is tax-deductible! When corporations are given the same constitutional rights as people, large corporations come out ahead, since they can afford more “free speech” and political power than human beings. By spending massive sums they can create a megaphone so big that their message drowns out the voices of actual human beings. When money equals speech, it is harder for those without money to be heard. It is no wonder, then, that public policies are often skewed to favor large corporations, big banks, and the wealthy at the expense of poor, working, and middle class people.
On January 21, 2012, coordinated demonstrations were held around the country to observe a National Day of Action on the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision. These events were coordinated by Move to Amend, a coalition made up of local and national groups for the purpose of raising awareness and building momentum toward passing a constitutional amendment to abolish corporate personhood and overturn Citizens United. Support for this idea is growing. Los Angeles and New York are now among the many US cities that have adopted resolutions supporting this movement in some form.
Passing a constitutional amendment abolishing corporate personhood would not just level the playing field, it would change the playing field altogether. It would help prevent corporations from drowning out the voices of the people.
This campaign to amend the constitution is born out of the vision is of a peoples’ democracy, where each one of us knows that we have input into the political process, and that our input counts. Faith communities can work with the national Move to Amend Coalition to educate congregations and communities and work toward a constitutional amendment that would help make this vision a reality.
Jeremiah and the other Hebrew prophets not only warned against idolatry, fatalism, and injustice, but also pointed the way toward repentance, healing, and grace: “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly with one another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow…, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place….” (Jeremiah 7:5-7).
Corporations are not persons, but human inventions that in many ways now dominate human beings. Someone once said, “If it doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t deserve free speech.” If it’s only conscience is the bottom line it doesn’t deserve to determine public policy. Democracy is not for corporations. Democracy is for people.
For more information check out the following:
Short film: The Story of Citizens United vs. the FEC