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Granted Power to Dominate Election Campaigns: Are Corporations Now Citizens?

If you’ve followed the controversy over the January Supreme Court decision giving corporations the right to unlimited election spending, you’ve probably gotten an earful about “corporate personhood.” It’s a legal doctrine giving corporations certain rights of real people (adding to their privileges, such as “limited liability,” beyond those of real people). But corporations are obviously not real people: they can’t, for example, vote, sit on juries, be drafted, or legally marry.

Moreover, in granting corporations the rights of people to electioneer, the Supreme Court majority overlooked something else pretty obvious, also with momentous significance:

Neither are corporations citizens.

The oath required of naturalized citizens logically conveys the meaning of citizenship in our country: “I will bear true faith and allegiance” to the United States.

No corporation could take this oath. The allegiance of a corporation is not to our country. It is to its shareholders. That allegiance is clear as corporations happily move operations overseas if it is to their advantage, depriving U.S. workers of jobs, or set up offices in Bermuda deliberately to deny our country desperately needed tax revenues. Between 1996 and 2000, 61 percent of U.S. corporations paid no taxes.

As non-citizens, corporations also lobby our Congress for special favors, often in direct conflict with what is best for citizens. I grew up learning in civics class that in democracies the essence of citizenship is accepting the responsibility to deliberate and vote for what is best for the polity as a whole. In fact, Americans often do make political decisions according to what they believe is in the country’s interest — not just what will directly and personally benefit them. Our advances, for example, in civil rights, directly benefiting a minority, would have been inconceivable unless this were true.

Right now in Congress are three legislative approaches to counter this dangerous error — the Supreme Court’s granting unlimited political spending power to entities whose legal structure, among other traits, make them non-citizens. They are the:

1. Fair Elections Now Act, in both Houses, enabling congressional candidates to choose to run for office with public funds and small citizen donations, eschewing corporate funding freeing themselves from corporate dependency;

2. The Disclosure Act, requiring these non-citizens to identify themselves on any advertising they sponsor.

3. And the Shareholder Protection Act, requiring corporations to secure approval of shareholders before spending money in campaigns.

Each is critical. They will not reverse the Supreme Court’s anti-democratic decision (ironically dubbed “Citizens United”), but they blunt its impact. They are essential because they give us time to engage in a national debate about what is democracy itself: whether it requires, among other important prerequisites, that those who engage in our political process are able to put the interests of the nation first.

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