Friday, January 22, 2010

The end of American democracy?

In the most stunningly wrong ruling since the Dred Scott Decision 153 years ago, the conservative activist judges on the US Supreme Court have transferred the power to elect governments in the US—from the local level right up to the President—to big corporations.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court removed all limits on how much money corporations can spend for or against political candidates. Some have said that, in effect, the activist judges have legalised bribery, and it’s hard to argue against that.

The court made two major errors: First, they continued the legal fiction that a corporation is “a person” in every respect and that then led them to their second error, that these non-existent persons have the same rights to “free speech” as real people.

Corporations are not people: They cannot vote and they cannot run for public office. Their managers and their owners (shareholders) are not necessarily even US Citizens or resident in the country, which means that foreigners are now free to buy American politicians by spending money for them or against their opponent. What politician, aided by such largesse, would oppose the wishes of their benefactor?

The rightwing, especially the Republican Leadership in Congress, has declared it a “victory” for the First Amendment. What they meant was a victory for their campaign finances, more likely, because there’s no way that stacking the deck so dramatically against ordinary citizens and their interests is victory for anything apart from the interests of the corporate elites.

Of course, there’s already the stench of special interest money in US politics, but this ruling will allow corporations to throw their money around openly. Unions will be free to spend money, too, but after decades of union-busting efforts by government and the corporate elites, unions collectively have less money available to them many large corporations.

The Framers of the Constitution could never have imagined today’s trans-national corporations. Had they done so, they would’ve forbidden corporate interference in elections. Any claim to the contrary betrays a fundamental misunderstanding or ignorance of the Founders’ suspicion of power being concentrated in too few hands.

There are some ways this damage could be undone, short of removing the rightwing justices and replacing them with sensible moderates. First, the Electoral College could be abolished, making individual states less important and making targeted spending by the corporate elites less effective. Failing that, Electoral Votes should be allocated by Congressional District, and not “winner takes all”.

Second, all elections should be Instant Run-off Voting. This would break the monopoly of the two parties as well as make it harder for corporate elites to target races because the result is less predictable.

But to be truly safe from the corporate elites, a future saner court will have to reverse this decision.

Update 23 January
– Roger Green has posted an interesting look at part of this: "Earl Warren Would Have Hated the Citizens United Ruling".


Roger Owen Green said...

Earl Warren told me the court was wrong w2hen it made corporations "people".


Moosep and Buddy Rabbit said...

I predict that the US will return to the days of the robber barons, when politicians will be wholly owned by large corporations. Instead of a congressman representing, say Ohio, they will represent WalMart.

toujoursdan said...

America is already a corporate oligarchy. We are well and truly screwed.

Anonymous said...

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections.

The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes--that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The Constitution gives every state the power to allocate its electoral votes for president, as well as to change state law on how those votes are awarded.

The bill is currently endorsed by over 1,659 state legislators (in 48 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. Support is strong in every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed.

The National Popular Vote bill has passed 29 state legislative chambers, in 19 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Oregon, and both houses in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington. These five states possess 61 electoral votes -- 23% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com

- said...

"Second, all elections should be Instant Run-off Voting."

IRV is a touch unstable.

* 80 people vote: A, C, B
* 50 people vote: B, C, A
* 35 people vote: C, B, A

IRV eliminates C (as it has the fewest first-place votes) and elects B. Odd as the majority of voters prefer C over B (115 to 50). This is known as a failure of the Condorcet criterion. Any Condorcet method will satisfy this criterion (e.g. the Schulze method, Ranked Pairs, etc).

I have a working example of the Schulze method at Modern Ballots. Give it a try and see if the results match with your intuition as to who should win. I'm wiling to bet it matches up better than IRV does.

Moosep and Buddy Rabbit said...

Hi, Arthur!

I've been thinking about this and put up a quick thought on my blog http://buddyrabbit.blogspot.com/2010/01/corporate-political-contributions.html

Would love your opinion.

Arthur Schenck said...

Roger: I was a huge mistake, indeed.

moosep: Yep, my thoughts exactly—literally. I imagined corporate logos fixed to Senators' desks, for example. I'll check out your post!

toujoursdan: Absolutely. Before this ruling, Americans had a shot, however remote, at real reform. That will now be impossible.

Anon: I've never heard of that, but I'll look into it. Maybe that'll inspire another post.

Brad: That's an interesting perspective on IRV, one I've not heard before. In Australia, where it's known as STV, I've never heard that particular complaint. In New Zealand, where STV is used for some races, the complaint has only been with how complex it is—which it is until learned.

However, the point of IRV/STV is to ensure that whoever is ultimately elected from a multi-candidate field has majority support. Under the American system, a person could theoretically be elected with a small minority of the votes cast. That's so un-democratic that IRV/STV, whatever its faults, would be light years better.

- said...

I agree that IRV (and by extension STV) is better than FPTP (and plurality at large) and would wholly support any movement to institute the former over the latter. Still, I think it's worth looking into alternate methods. :)

Jason in DC said...

I agree that the Electoral College should be done away with.

The winner of the presidency should be the candidate that receives the most votes.

However, I still think that smaller states, which are usually ignored now, would still be ignored. Why ever campaign in Montana when California is right near by.

Anonymous said...

I love this ruling. It only makes transparent what we all knew was the case anyways. Why go through the charade that democracy exists for the people by the people? That America died long ago.

Arthur Schenck said...

I just noticed that I made a typo in my reply above to Roger, changing the meaning to one that my conservative adversaries would surely share. At any rate, Roger has now expanded on his remark on his own blog, and I've added a link in this post, in the update at the end.

Brad: I completely agree. If the US is going to change its voting system into one that's more democratic and fair, then it ought to go for the best one possible. I hope I didn't seem dismissive of what you were saying, I simply meant that the particular point you raised isn't one I'd heard mentioned in this part of the world.

However, the best voting system in the world won't be of any use if the contracts for running it go to questionable corporations, as could happen now that Citizen Corporations will have such a huge role in governing.

Jason: I don't think all small states will get ignored: Ones in major TV market regions—like, say, Delaware or Rhode Island—will still get attention, places like Montana and the Dakotas not much. I don't think there's anything that can be done to change that.

Anon 2:Hard-core cynic, eh? The difference is that before this ruling, it was possible to elect people of good conscience (and there are several I can list). Thanks to this ruling, that will become harder and eventually it'll likely be impossible.

Roger Owen Green said...

There is one thing that will give smallish states greater play, which already happens in Maine and Nebraska: proprtional allocation of Electoral Votes. Obama got an EV from from Nebraska. But you're all right- those states with only 3 EVs have little chance to be courted unless they're near a larger market.

Thanks for the plug to the article.