Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Picture That Says A Trillion Words






The Corporate Takeover of U.S. Democracy

By Noam Chomsky February 3, 2010

Jan. 21, 2010, will go down as a dark day in the history of
U.S. democracy, and its decline.

On that day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government
may not ban corporations from political spending on
elections--a decision that profoundly affects government
policy, both domestic and international.

The decision heralds even further corporate takeover of the
U.S. political system.

To the editors of The New York Times, the ruling
"strikes at the heart of democracy" by having
"paved the way for corporations to use their vast
treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected
officials into doing their bidding."

The court was split, 5-4, with the four reactionary judges
(misleadingly called "conservative") joined by
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
selected a case that could easily have been settled on narrow
grounds and maneuvered the court into using it to push
through a far-reaching decision that overturns a century of
precedents restricting corporate contributions to federal

Now corporate managers can in effect buy elections directly,
bypassing more complex indirect means. It is well-known that
corporate contributions, sometimes packaged in complex ways,
can tip the balance in elections, hence driving policy. The
court has just handed much more power to the small sector of
the population that dominates the economy.

Political economist Thomas Ferguson's "investment theory
of politics" is a very successful predictor of
government policy over a long period. The theory interprets
elections as occasions on which segments of private sector
power coalesce to invest to control the state.

The Jan. 21 decision only reinforces the means to undermine
functioning democracy.

The background is enlightening. In his dissent, Justice John
Paul Stevens acknowledged that "we have long since held
that corporations are covered by the First
Amendment"--the constitutional guarantee of free speech,
which would include support for political candidates.

In the early 20th century, legal theorists and courts
implemented the court's 1886 decision that
corporations--these "collectivist legal
entities"--have the same rights as persons of flesh and blood.

This attack on classical liberalism was sharply condemned by
the vanishing breed of conservatives. Christopher G. Tiedeman
described the principle as "a menace to the liberty of
the individual, and to the stability of the American states
as popular governments."

Morton Horwitz writes in his standard legal history that the
concept of corporate personhood evolved alongside the shift
of power from shareholders to managers, and finally to the
doctrine that "the powers of the board of directors
"are identical with the powers of the corporation."
In later years, corporate rights were expanded far beyond
those of persons, notably by the mislabeled "free trade
agreements." Under these agreements, for example, if
General Motors establishes a plant in Mexico, it can demand
to be treated just like a Mexican business ("national
treatment")--quite unlike a Mexican of flesh and blood
who might seek "national treatment" in New York, or
even minimal human rights.

A century ago, Woodrow Wilson, then an academic, described an
America in which "comparatively small groups of
men," corporate managers, "wield a power and
control over the wealth and the business operations of the
country," becoming "rivals of the government itself."

In reality, these "small groups" increasingly have
become government's masters. The Roberts court gives them
even greater scope.

The Jan. 21 decision came three days after another victory
for wealth and power: the election of Republican candidate
Scott Brown to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the
"liberal lion" of Massachusetts. Brown's election
was depicted as a "populist upsurge" against the
liberal elitists who run the government.

The voting data reveal a rather different story.

High turnouts in the wealthy suburbs, and low ones in largely
Democratic urban areas, helped elect Brown. "Fifty-five
percent of Republican voters said they were `very interested'
in the election," The Wall St. Journal/NBC poll
reported, "compared with 38 percent of Democrats."

So the results were indeed an uprising against President
Obama's policies: For the wealthy, he was not doing enough to
enrich them further, while for the poorer sectors, he was
doing too much to achieve that end.

The popular anger is quite understandable, given that the
banks are thriving, thanks to bailouts, while unemployment
has risen to 10 percent.

In manufacturing, one in six is out of work--unemployment at
the level of the Great Depression. With the increasing
financialization of the economy and the hollowing out of
productive industry, prospects are bleak for recovering the
kinds of jobs that were lost.

Brown presented himself as the 41st vote against
healthcare--that is, the vote that could undermine majority
rule in the U.S. Senate.

It is true that Obama's healthcare program was a factor in
the Massachusetts election. The headlines are correct when
they report that the public is turning against the program.

The poll figures explain why: The bill does not go far
enough. The Wall St. Journal/NBC poll found that a majority
of voters disapprove of the handling of healthcare both by
the Republicans and by Obama.

These figures align with recent nationwide polls. The public
option was favored by 56 percent of those polled, and the
Medicare buy-in at age 55 by 64 percent; both programs were abandoned.

Eighty-five percent believe that the government should have
the right to negotiate drug prices, as in other countries;
Obama guaranteed Big Pharma that he would not pursue that option.

Large majorities favor cost-cutting, which makes good sense:
U.S. per capita costs for healthcare are about twice those of
other industrial countries, and health outcomes are at the low end.

But cost-cutting cannot be seriously undertaken when largesse
is showered on the drug companies, and healthcare is in the
hands of virtually unregulated private insurers--a costly
system peculiar to the U.S.

The Jan. 21 decision raises significant new barriers to
overcoming the serious crisis of healthcare, or to addressing
such critical issues as the looming environmental and energy
crises. The gap between public opinion and public policy
looms larger. And the damage to American democracy can hardly
be overestimated.


Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor & Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. foreign policy. He writes a monthly column for The New York Times News Service/Syndicate.

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