“Corporations are people, my friends,” Mitt Romney said. And in Citizens United, the conservative justices of the Supreme Court agreed, ruling that corporations, like individuals, are free to spend unlimited sums in so-called “independent expenditures” for candidates.
The result–as TV viewers in contested presidential states or in states with contested Senate or key House seats can attest–is an unprecedented flood of money into political ads. Much of it from independent front groups that are spending ever-greater sums of money from anonymous donors largely on attack ads.
What is going on? Clearly, the super-rich, the big banks and the corporations are looking to buy these elections. Romney, the candidate from Bain and the world of what Republican Gov. Rick Perry called “vulture capitalism,” is a major beneficiary. But candidates in both parties work to raise this money, compromising their own ability to stand up for working people.
Consider Romney’s agenda. He’s for tax cuts for the rich, for ending the estate tax that applies to multimillion-dollar fortunes, for sustaining the “carried interest deduction” that allows private-equity millionaires like himself to pay lower tax rates than the police who patrol their streets.
It goes on. He’s for a “territorial corporate tax system” that would exempt corporations for any profits earned or reported abroad. This essentially turns the world into a potential tax haven, encouraging companies to move jobs or report profits overseas. No one has been more creative at that than Romney’s own company, Bain Capital, which is notorious for opening shell companies everywhere from the Cayman Islands to Luxembourg.
So naturally, Wall Street bankers, the private-equity billionaires and the multinational companies are lining up for Romney and flooding pro-Romney groups with money. With inequality reaching Gilded Age levels, the super-rich are once more looking to buy protection. They are also looking to eliminate any competition.
In California, for example, conservative Republicans have cooked up Proposition 32. It parades as campaign-finance reform that would eliminate the use of payroll deductions for raising money for political activity by either corporations or unions. Sounds equitable, right? Except corporate executives don’t use payroll deductions to raise political money, only unions do. CEOs can take the money directly from the corporate till if they choose–without a vote by stockholders. Or, more often, the CEO hosts a fundraiser or two. Company executives are invited; they are “encouraged” to donate. Records are kept.
So, as the Los Angeles Times editorialized, “Those who have seen its list of backers will not be surprised to learn that it would have a devastating effect on labor unions’ political fundraising efforts and only a trivial impact on corporate spending. Voters should reject it.”
Big money is free to speak, the conservatives on the Supreme Court have ruled. Now conservatives and corporations are pushing to limit the rights of unions to organize, to bargain collectively and to engage in political activity. They are pushing an unprecedented effort to limit access to voting.
We’ve never witnessed this level of big money in our politics. We’ve not seen this systematic effort to make voting more difficult since the days of the segregated South. We’ve not seen this effort to suppress union participation since the Gilded Age.
This is no accident. The richest 1 percent is capturing more of the nation’s income and wealth than at any time since the 1920s. And they pay the lowest tax rates since that time. They are mobilizing to protect their privilege. The only question is whether they will get away with it.