“I would think that any particular form of organization upon which the State confers special privileges or immunities different from those of natural persons would be subject to like regulation, whether the organization is a labor union, a partnership, a trade association, or a corporation.”
~~former Chief Justice William Rehnquist
In his dissent of the First Bank of Boston v Belloti case, 1978
There is a notion from many quarters that the idea of abolishing the constitutional rights is a “liberal” or “progressive” concern. That idea is mostly wrong, and ballot results to date reinforce this argument. The constitutional rights that have been granted by the Supreme Court to corporations, i.e., “artificial persons,” has no basis in the Constitution outside of two poorly worded phrases in the 14th Amendment, phrases that were intended to protect natural persons, not artificial persons.
The important point to keep in mind
Before describing the ideological qualities of this issue, it is important to understand the legal framework set forth in the Constitution. People, human beings, have rights. People in elected office have power, and all associations have privileges as granted by the state. Clearly, former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a principled conservative, understood this basic concept. The press and the incorporated bodies of religion have regulated privileges, but their members have rights to use those privileged associations. The following four and a half minute sound clip explains:
The complex of ideological factors behind the abolition of corporation rights
Many people believe that ideology runs in a line from far radical left (Marxism, anarchism and utopian communities) to moderate in the middle of the line all the way over, past conservative to the far, reactionary right (fascism in the extreme end beyond the Tea Party politicos fighting for control of the Republican Party). This topology is crude and overly simplistic. A more comprehensive understanding of political values stems from the following mandala, a taxonomy of political values, originally derived by William Erwin Thompson; and it is used here with his permission.
The area to the immediate left and the immediate right of “Order” is where legislatures typically operate, the political center. The top half of the mandala can accurately be thought of as the Overton Window, the policy range politicians can support and get re-elected in fair elections. The extreme ends of the spectrum are wrapped around at the bottom to show that when in close proximity, the extremists tend to fight rather than talk, cooperate or compromise with each other.
“Progressive” on the left can be replaced by “Charisma” and “Charisma” on the right can be replaced by “Regressive.” A shift in a legislature’s center to the right (President Reagan’s rhetoric) or the left (President Obama’s rhetoric) is sometimes lead by a charismatic leader capable of shifting the Overton Window, of changing what position a politician can take on an issue and still get re-elected. More often, it is the public in movements (Tea Party on the far right, OWS on the far left) that cause a shift in the Overton Window. The late Joseph Overton argued that is it usually the people in movements and public opinion that shift the center of possible policy choices any politician can take and retain public support (win elections). Propagandists in the media also attempt to move the Overton Window in one direction or the other.
Another book could be written to describe this taxonomy of ideologies, but this brief summary should suffice for the discussion here, an attempt to place on this mandala where the abolition of corporate constitutional rights belongs. This abolition would come from a constitutional amendment as called for by the Human Rights Amendment, the We the People Amendment and Senator Tester’s recently introduced amendment which is similar to the People’s Rights Amendment introduced into the House by Rep. Jim McGovern (D). Rep. Walter Jones (R) also cosponsored an amendment that would allow Congress and the states to regulate corporations thereby eliminating their constitutional rights. Ideologically, it can be argued that the abolition of corporation constitutional rights is mainstream and trans-partisan. It is well within the Overton Window.
However, is the abolition of corporate rights a reform (liberal)? Although some politicians and advocates may want to make that case to sound moderate, abolishing corporate personhood goes to the root of many of the social, economic and environmental ills in the U.S. and even around the world. Citizens United filed their lawsuit against the FEC as a corporation claiming that the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 violated its 1st Amendment right to free speech, the root of that infamous case. Abolishing corporate rights would radically change the status of corporations as legal entities in the United States, but is it radical? That will be analyzed below, but this effort is no mere reform and therefore not “liberal” in the normal sense of the word.
Getting at the root of any issue is a radical undertaking, but is the abolition of corporate personhood actually supported by radicals? The website, Popular Resistance, a resource for radicals resisting the status quo, lists the “Fifteen Core Issues The Country Must Face.” First on that list is “Corporatism,” and the first sentence of that point reads, “Firmly establish that money is not speech, corporations are not people and only people have Constitutional rights.” This was also a core issue of the radical Occupy Wall Street movement that caught fire in the autumn of 2011. Without a doubt, this is a radical issue supported by 68% of Republicans(!), 82% of Independents and 87% of Democrats. This odd alignment between both mainstream parties and the extreme alone makes this effort ideologically unusual.
However, there are also a good many reasons why conservatives would want to see corporations lose their rights. Never in American history have corporations been granted rights by any legislature. Judges, ruling from the bench, have granted corporations the rights that they have; and conservatives do not generally support this type of judicial activism. In addition, Justice Rehnquist, quoted at the head of this piece, was a principled conservative. This is an issue that the radicals and principled conservatives can agree on as suggested by the amount of Republican support this idea has. This alone makes it clear that this movement is trans-ideological.
So this issue has mainstream and radical support, but how is it not profoundly reactionary? A reactionary effort attempts to push the legal status of persons or associations back to some historically previous status. The further back in history, the more reactionary the effort becomes. Anyone supporting the enslavement of American blacks would accurately be tagged a reactionary, not to mention racist. How is the idea of abolishing corporate rights any different, aside from race not being a factor? The effort to return the legal status of corporations to what it was before the 1889 case Minneapolis and the St. Louis RR v Beckwith, is, by definition, reactionary. That this effort is supported by both radicals and the mainstream serves to underscore just how flawed and unconstitutional was the reasoning of the justices granting corporations the constitutional rights that they have today.
The abolition of corporate constitutional rights is radical, conservative, reactionary and supported by the mainstream of Americans, but is it progressive? Being historically regressive, it would seem to be anything but, however many progressives have embraced and enjoined the movement to abolish corporate constitutional rights. Why? If there is a progressive argument to be made against corporate rights, it stems from the type of progressivism embraced by Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, the trust-buster. He sought to curb the power, size and influence of corporations. The Tillman Act of 1907, which outlawed contributions by corporations to political committees or for any political purpose, was signed into law by President Roosevelt. (This was an essential law that was rendered obsolete by the Citizens United decision.) Senator McCain has stated that “…we need a level playing field and we need to go back to the realization that Teddy Roosevelt had that we have to have a limit on the flow of money, and that corporations are not people.” Progressivism, narrowly defined as seeking to curb corporate, not individual, behavior, is certainly part of the trans-ideological mix of political values that are behind the effort to end this flawed philosophy of jurisprudence.
Time for a new framework of political values
When it comes to abolishing corporate constitutional rights, it is safe to argue that the taxonomy of political values depicted above is inadequate to a certain degree. It suffices to depict, however, that this movement is trans-ideological, covering all political values that do not place corporations above we the people.
In a piece entitled “Time to Abolish Left vs. Right,” author Carl Gibson concludes:
Americans should be smarter than to allow ourselves to get thrown into the counter-productive left vs. right fight hyped by the corporate-owned media and our corporate-owned politicians. If we’re going to fight a binary struggle, it should be populist vs. corporatist. That’s the only real division in this country right now. Are you on the people’s side, or on big money’s side?
That, in the final analysis, is the new populist struggle this movement is engaged in. Across the spectrum of ideologues, there will be corporate liberals (like President Obama?), corporate conservatives (like Governor Romney), corporate media (NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox and CBS) and corporate reactionaries (like David and Charles Koch and their minions in the Cato Institutute) who will defend the judicial activism of corporate judges (like Justices Kennedy, Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Thomas). That paragraph by Gibson explains why corporate-owned media is unlikely to cover this movement in a favorable light as it grows in the coming years.
The main point to make when having a discussion about this issue is that only human beings have rights as set forth in the Constitution. Corporations were granted constitutional rights by corporate judges. The public discussion in townhall meetings with constituents and on the campaign trails in the coming years needs to include the question to politicians: Are you with the people, or are you with the corporations? When it comes to abolishing corporate rights, there is no overlap possible. Politicians are either with us or against us. Compel them to decide.