Do you think you can understand butterflies perfectly well without knowing caterpillars? Corporate political contributions had a caterpillar stage; I’m guessing you won’t even recognize it. Here’s a snippet:
No corporation doing business in this state, shall pay or contribute, or offer, consent or agree to pay or contribute, directly or indirectly, any money, property, free service of its officers or employees or thing of value to any political party, organization, committee or individual for any political purpose whatsoever, or for the purpose of influencing legislation of any kind, or to promote or defeat the candidacy of any person for nomination, appointment or election to any political office.
Whoever wrote that thought corporate money has no business mixing with politics, with elections, with the political process, or with democracy. That’s deep common sense. The excerpt is from a 1905 Wisconsin law, and many states passed similar ones. But if you suggest to people that it should be law today, they laugh in your face. Then re-direct you to some lame slogan-y substitute project that mainstream foundations will fund. (You know who you are.)
The laughter is from people who have lost, or never known (or maybe are afraid of), the clear vision of a transparent and democratic political process expressed in the quote. We probably won’t achieve it by next Tuesday morning, but without a goal with some there there, we fritter away our activism on inconsequential side shows. Compared to the “No corporation…” approach, McCain-Feingold and the Michigan law voided by the Citizens United case are embarrassing.
That inherently self-limiting, self-censoring perspective (bad selfies) means that even reformers’ wildest goals fail to question the assumptions that today pass for common knowledge—and that must be changed before we can begin to work toward a democratic system here.
The Butterfly Stage: Money = Speech
For people who don’t think it significant that butterflies come from caterpillars, a counter-narrative has replaced the deep common sense of the 1905 law. It’s often abbreviated as money equals speech, an equation brought to us by the Supreme Court when it officially legalized the role of corporate money in elections (Buckley v. Valeo, 1976). It goes something like this: in today’s world, you need money to make your views known, so spending money in a political campaign is a First Amendment right. (Among other things, this view does not distinguish between human beings and corporate persons, but you can read about that here.)
The PAC (political action committee) was invented as part of a liberal “reform,” the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA 1971, 1974). The wind at its back was a backlash against CREEP, Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President. If you’re trying to place this culturally, AM radio stations were cycling “Rhinestone Cowboy” hourly.
Under the FECA, corporate political money was heavily regulated, but legal. It was just a matter of time (and not much time, at that) before FECAL CREEP set in: corporate lawyers and lobbyists learned a new kind of bundling, while continuing to chip away at the regs through relentless piecemeal legislation and judicial monkey-wrenching. Today there is so much other legal money flying around, the PAC has a much reduced role. Even the SuperPac has been largely superseded by further limits on the limits of so-called “soft money.” Citizens United is but one step in this process.
What’s going on in that chrysalis? Afraid to look?
No matter how long and hard you stare at a butterfly, there’s neither caterpillar nor chrysalis within. You must go OUTSIDE the butterfly—into its pre-history, so to speak—to see the present for what it is. Call it phenology, or history, or just commonplace observation; there’s no shortcut.
In the phenology of corporate campaign cash, many deep-common-sense chinks had to be eased out of place before a seemingly lobotomized electorate would be so dazzled by the butterfly stage that they would stop imagining what democracy might look like. Here’s a sampling of the crud that corporate engines pumped in to replace the 1905 vision.
- Corporations had to be accepted as constitutional “persons,” with many of the rights of human beings, despite the fact that corporations are creations of government. This started as early as the late 1880s in a series of Supreme Court cases often referred to today as “corporate personhood” cases.
- The purpose of (government-created) corporations had to be expanded from a specific legislatively established public purpose to essentially “anything you can think of.” The open-ended corporate purpose of today was mostly legally “settled” by the time of the Great Depression.
- The idea of corporations interfering with the democratic process by “donating” had to be established. Corporate representative struggled for decades to get legal permission to donate to charities, a desire no doubt inspired by the powerful nationwide anti-chain store movement of the early twentieth century. Corporations got this power from the IRS in the mid-1930s (another reform era), and it was confirmed judicially only in 1953.
- People had to accept that Money = Speech, Corporations are constitutional persons, and therefore corporations could legally “speak” by giving money to campaigns. Implicit in this is that (golly) corporations have opinions. (Of course, they don’t do a straw poll of employees).
- In and around all of this is the notion that somehow corporations exist on their own in some sense, and not just as an entities created by governments to serve a specific public purpose.
- The real biggie here is not just that over generations, fewer and fewer decisions were left to locals—but that this, uh, trend, has not been challenged more consistently. (And before you even complete that thought, there is much more to local power than small racist elites running so-called governments like plantations.) A long list of suspects–federal preemption, “efficiency,” a domestic “free trade” agenda, hugely increased power to the federal court system, a growing conglomeration of Borgesian fantasies clothed as legal doctrines, a misplaced notion that locals are usually yokels–has contributed to the fact that local power is at a low ebb.
It is these “facts o’ life,” grandfathered in by ignorance and complacency, that need to be disputed, rejected, and replaced if we expect to achieve substantial political reform. Add them to your to-do list. Or else…
The Post-Butterfly Stage, if we Don’t Intervene
Maybe today’s corporate campaign cash universe is on the verge of transformation to another stage. Like…sending out catalogues for ordering “take-out” legislators. It could be by the year, the term, or even for life. Or maybe, short-term store specials where you can just buy them for a single vote or issue. (Why pay for votes on endangered species if you only care about corporate tax rates?) More possibilities—economies of scale if you want to buy a dozen legislators instead of just one, maybe a banker’s dozen. Coupons! (Half off before the Iowa caucuses!) Buy one, get one free! Generic politicians versus name brands, frequent flier miles converted into committee votes, Don Draper, where are you now? (Apologies to reader for using more than my lifetime allotment of exclamation points.)
The 1905 law was a STATE LAW, and was still on the books, with lessened penalties, until the early 1970s when the FEC Act—a liberal reform–effectively nullified it.
All of today’s political butterflies had a caterpillar stage. This stuff is legally “settled” only because not enough people question it.
Apology to Butterflies
I apologize to butterflies, their precursors and successors, and all other associated hangers-on, for bringing them into this discussion. They deserve better. The sausage-making metaphor long applied to legislation is bad enough. I don’t know what got into me. I’ll blame unexpected drug interactions in the wake of the Republican debates for my shameful insectoid metamorphosis analogy here.
Coming soon…were the pyramids built to store grain or…Syrians?