reasoned thought for an age of uncertainty
Stephen Colbert has announced his (ironic) bid for the Presidency, stating last week that he would be running for the “President of the United States of South Carolina.” Colbert’s move came after handing over control of his super PAC to friend and fellow comedian Jon Stewart and renaming it The Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC. Colbert had formed the super PAC as part of a satire on the absurdity of election laws and the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which held that corporations are people entitled to free speech under the Constitution (and therefore any limitations on corporate expenditures in pursuit of free speech, notably the McCain-Feingold Act, are unconstitutional).
The Citizens United decision has made its impact in this election cycle, by giving rise to the “super PAC.” A PAC is a political action committee which is set up by organizations such corporations (including non-profits) and unions in order to promote a particular political agenda. Corporations must use a PAC because they are not allowed to contribute directly to political campaigns. The McCain-Feingold Act, which was overturned in part by Citizens United, had prohibited any election ads by PACs which were paid for by corporations as “electioneering communications.” With the restriction removed by the Supreme Court, however, PACs are now able to open their coffers to contributions from corporations, giving rise to the so-called “super PAC”. While they can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, super PACs still may not contribute directly to campaigns or otherwise coordinate with them (hence the name of Stephen Colbert’s super PAC), though as Stephen Colbert’s super PAC handover to Jon Stewart made very clear, this is a very thin wall.
These super PACs raise serious concerns for democracy in the United States, since elections will now be subject to the influence of the massive wealth that corporations may bring to bear. In fact, Super PACs have been already extremely active in the 2012 election, with spending in the Republican primary by super PACs now outpacing campaign spending by a factor of 2-1. How is the voice of an average voter to be heard then over the din of super PAC ads?
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As a matter of political economy, the Citizens United opinion and the rise of the super PAC marks an abrupt turn from democracy towards a more collective form of politic. Now, corporations and their shareholders, who are already controlling the vast majority of this nation’s wealth, will be able to bring their economic power to bear on the political arena. As noted during the Great Depression by the founders of modern corporate theory, Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means:
“The rise of the modern corporation has brought a concentration of economic power which can compete on equal terms with the modern state—economic power versus political power, each strong in its own field. The state seeks in some aspects to regulate the corporation, while the corporation, steadily becoming more powerful, makes every effort to avoid such regulation. Where its own interests are concerned, it even attempts to dominate the state.”
The corporation thus is its own form of social organization (and an intensely hierarchical one), taking on governmental powers. What many proponents of the “free market”, and that includes the 5 Supreme Court Justices in the Citizens United majority, fail to recognize is that corporations are themselves a form of governmental institution. They derive their powers from the states, and their operations are subject to a series of laws on a number of issues and oversight by the courts. While the rise of corporations has spawned the modern economy, it has also resulted in the fact that “[a] small group [of corporate controllers] in connection with their bankers thus has a power over a very large proportion of the savings of the country; likewise over the lives of the men who work in the industries; and, in a less direct sense, over the public served by them.” Prior to the Citizens United decision, election laws such as the McCain-Feingold Act protected the power of the state from encroachment by corporations.
With the Citizens United decision and the rise of the super PAC, the small group of individuals which controls corporations is now gaining control over the political system in the United States. This poses a serious threat to both democracy and capitalism, because it gives rise to a collectivized form of government-economy that is designed to benefit a specific class of individuals: corporate shareholders. In other words, by tearing down the barrier between our political and economic organizations, we are setting up a crony form of government where both institutions feed off of each other. As a matter of politcal economy, this begins to to look a lot more like socialism, not capitalist democracy. But unlike traditional socialism, rather than having a state-guided economy, we have an economy-guided state (this is somewhat akin to models of fascist socialism set up in Europe during the 20th century).
The issue here is not merely whether corporations are “people” (though as Bill Moyers poignantly noted on Colbert’s show, “As a friend of mine from Texas says, he will believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”), but rather that those corporations represent a distinct class of citizens, an oligarchy. As corporations displace the power of individual citizens to determine the outcome of elections, the American political system will become increasingly compromised. Elections alone do not make a democracy, and even dictatorships have elections every now and then (and we all can predict the outcome). So as super PACs gain power in our electoral system, perhaps the most strident voice is the one that refuses to be duped by the absurdity of this new political system. And votes Colbert.