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Social Issues Tue Jul 19 2011

Persons, Inc.

contributed by Brian Reilly

"OK, so these are the things converging with us," Annabel Park says over the phone from suburban Washington, DC. "One is the corruption, the level of corruption in Washington that really is impeding progress on just about every single issue that concerns the American people. So I think from climate change to campaign finance to Wall Street reform, all these issues that progress is desperately needed, is impeded by the influence of money in our government."

Park is a documentary film maker who in 2010 turned a primal scream of a Facebook post about incivility at Congressional town hall meetings into a national organization called the Coffee Party movement. In less than two years the Coffee Party movement claims to have an e-mail list of 75,000 people and 378,158 Facebook participants.

The Coffee Party has taken up the cause of bringing individuals back into the political process through what they consider to be a more civil and reasoned approach to discussing and advocating for issues. As Park sits down to talk, the Coffee Party has taken on the issue of getting banking watchdog Elizabeth Warren nominated to head the new federal Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

"The other problem is disengagement of the people in the democratic process," Park continues. "So, there are two distinct problems that are related in the sense that because money can influence not only Washington but our media...and if you can create the kind of theater that confuses people or polarizes people...people check out because very few people enjoy going to a professional wrestling match, right?"

While some on all sides decry the incivility in politics, others feed off of the conflict. A constant protest cry is to take back America. But take it back from whom?

America is a nation of self-definition. We are a people constantly changing ourselves and regularly reminding each other that we are whoever we say we are.

We are a nation born not out of any common religion nor ethnicity but rather a common belief of "inalienable rights." The Declaration of Independence that first created the American identity from a belief in the fundamental human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness had, in early drafts, included a right to property. That didn't make the cut.

The Constitution also chose some rights over others as well as who was and was not entitled to those rights. We the People make the laws but not all persons are people.

On January 21, 2010 the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision for Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission. In Citizens United the Court overturned precedent and Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the 5-4 majority that, "Government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements but may not suppress that speech altogether."

The Kennedy opinion established that the Constitution's First Amendment right to free speech applied to corporations. The Court's new law was crafted from a legal doctrine claiming that corporations are legal persons.

In a blistering dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, "The basic premise underlying the Court's ruling is its iteration, and constant reiteration, of the proposition that the First Amendment bars regulatory distinctions based on a speaker's identity, including its "identity" as a corporation. While that glittering generality has rhetorical appeal, it is not a correct statement of the law."

Justice Stevens then cuts to the heart of the debate over corporate personhood. Does a corporation have the same rights as a person? "The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court's disposition of this case."

Stevens continues:

In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.

Whatever the merits of Stevens' arguments, he lost. The Court's majority decision was more the result of a 30 year political crusade than the weight of any legal debate. Corporate personhood would survive for the same reason that it was created: those that wanted it had organized and won.

The legal creation of corporate personhood has its origins in the abolition of slavery. The Fourteen Amendment to the Constitution secured citizenship and equal protection rights primarily to slaves born in the United States and protected those rights from actions by any state.

While Jim Crow would gradually water down those rights for African Americans, the protections within the Fourteenth Amendment would be seized upon by corporations seeking greater power in a rapidly industrializing nation.

In 1886 the Court ruled in favor of the Southern Pacific railroad, that had sought relief under the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, in a tax dispute against Santa Clara, California. Although the Court did not rule on the Fourteenth Amendment argument specifically, the notion of corporate personhood was established.

During the late 1960s into the early 1970s the American business community had endured a series of political setbacks regarding increased regulations and consumer protections.

By the 1970s, key business leaders including Lewis Powell, who would go on to a career on the Supreme Court, saw a desperate need for an organized response. In their book "Winner-Take-All Politics", Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson write, "They recognized that business had hardly begun to tap its potential for wielding political power."

Hacker and Pierson continue, "Not only were the financial resources at the disposal of business leaders unrivaled. The hierarchical structures of corporations made it possible for a handful of decision-makers to deploy those resources and combine them with the massive but underutilized capacities of their far-flung organizations."

Business PACs would go from trailing labor PAC spending in Congressional races to outspending the unions by the end of the 1970s. The business PACs would also switch their strategy from donating to incumbents, the majority of which were Democrats, to contributing to conservative challengers.

The battle was on and in less than a decade business interests were successful in pulling Congressional Democratic loyalties away from their traditional base in organized labor and making them more and more dependent on corporate PAC's financial contributions.

Beginning with the defeat of consumer legislation during the Carter Administration, business organizations would begin a streak of political domination that continues unabated today.

"So corporate personhood could be a legal notion," Annabel Park says. "[I]f they don't use it then it's completely innocuous, I don't even know what it means. But the way they're using it is basically to legalize what should be illegal behavior. That's the problem."

In October 2008, the 30 year war on Big Government would culminate spectacularly with the bailout of to-big-to-fail financial institutions. The "Quiet Coup" was complete.

"The reason why you're paying more in property taxes and getting less in services is that there is a corporate entity out there saying don't charge me," Curtis Smith argues. Smith, board president of the Lakeview Action Coalition (LAC), has come to the issue of corporate personhood out of necessity.

As a community organization, LAC has had its fair share of conflict with corporations. Often while advocating for affordable housing or access to health care, corporations end up being the party targeted to resolve the issue. But organizers are trained to avoid vague theories like "corporate personhood" and to focus on immediate, solvable issues. That began to change after the financial crisis of 2008.

At first, LAC advocated for a state tax increase in order for social services providers to receive massive back payments due to them. This year, the community started hearing about threats to federal Section 8 housing vouchers and then finally federal Community Development Block Grant cuts of over 60 percent to local service providers.

With cuts the size of those proposed in Washington, social services providers were facing an existential threat. LAC began educating its membership on the big picture of where the revenue crisis was coming from and how people are surviving in the neighborhood. They were sick of fighting over crumbs.

Lakeview joined a network of activists like Make Wall Street Pay Illinois to call on greater accountability for corporations and banks that had been bailed out into profitability yet continued to use their massive political power to resist assistance to people and communities left out of the recovery.

"I think it's fair to say that a lot of people feel one person, one vote; no one person's vote is more powerful than any other's," Smith says. "But we know that corporations, obviously, have a unique sort of advantage on that issue."

The influence of corporate money has surpassed the value of the dollars themselves. Corporate influence has resulted in an intellectual capture of the regulatory agencies, the courts, and the overall populace.

The mind set that the private sector always knows best has set up a revolving door of corporate influence. Bureaucrats leave government for lucrative jobs in the industries they were once regulating only to return to lead the regulatory agencies and set budgets.

"Corporations as citizens, whether it's the entity itself or people who have deep backgrounds into corporations going into government, is a battle that we're going to fundamentally deal with," Smith says. "All these cuts have people associated with them. It''s not like you're cutting widgets."

To Annabel Park the threat of corporate personhood is greater than the impact on any particular agency or individual. "The biggest problem is we talk about this as if it's about politics but it's really about our economic survival," Park says. "Are we actually going to survive this period as a functioning economy? Because we can have another financial collapse any moment."

Even with such high stakes, Park has hope through the rapid growth of her movement. "It really comes down to we're human beings and we're always going to want real freedom," she proclaims. "We're not going to settle for less."

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