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Moving on up: the big money takeover of America

United States

Shortly before the US midterm elections last month, online activist group MoveOn announced that it had acquired a leaked memo documenting the creation of a new organization, RepubliCorp™.

‘The Cabal of Multinational Corporations,’ the memo read, ‘is pleased to formally announce… our complete merger with the Republican Party. RepubliCorp™ combines the ethics-free campaigning savvy of the GOP [Grand Old Party] with the limit-free spending power of Corporate America™.’

It added: ‘with the recent Citizens United ruling* finally placing the US government on the open market, RepubliCorpTM is now perfectly positioned to lead our hostile takeover bid.’

The memo was, of course, a spoof. But it came complete with a true-to-life flow chart of how big business funds circulate through an intertwined network of pro-corporate media outlets, faux-grassroots political organizations, and the campaigns of Wall Street-friendly candidates.

The US may be unique in considering the ascendancy of its corporations as an extension of its democratic liberties

The US still holds to a cherished notion of its exceptionalism: the idea that its national ethos and democratic values give it a singular place among the countries of the world. But nothing is less exceptional on our planet of Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern oil barons, engorged Chinese party officials and transnational Davos élites than the principle that money rules.

The US may be unique only in that it considers the ascendancy of its corporations as an extension of its democratic liberties. The landmark Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case last January reaffirmed the concept that corporations should be legally regarded as free ‘people’ – as they have been in the US since the late 1800s. And then, wiping out a century’s worth of subsequent restrictions on corporate behaviour, the Court also insisted that these curious individuals must be treated no differently than everybody else.

This, despite the fact that corporate ‘people’ possess personality traits that you would be hard pressed to find in anyone you’d meet in a stroll through your typical neighbourhood. For starters, they possess no moral conscience, they can live in perpetuity, and they often have war chests that make the resources available to most of us natural born mortals look like wee penny purses.

Not to worry, states the majority ruling in the US Supreme Court, ‘there is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate’ elected officials to those who spend mightily on their behalves.

Despite its reassuring intent, this sense-defying contention has provoked concern. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich holds that a ‘perfect storm’ has descended upon the nation: ‘An unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top, a record amount of secret money flooding our democracy, and a public in the aftershock of the Great Recession becoming increasingly angry and cynical about government’ have together allowed for the ‘Big Money Takeover of America’.

Perhaps. Yet many would argue that this takeover was already well under way by the time of the Clinton administration which Reich served – the same one that oversaw the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the creation of the World Trade Organization. Indeed, the most farcical element of the MoveOn memo may have been that it exempted the Democrats from scrutiny. For as much as corporate money is now pushing the frontiers of the Right, it has constrained the imagination of US liberals, President Obama included.

The problem of money in politics is not a new one, nor is it the province of only one political party. But the post-Citizens United state of the country – in which we are told to treat the corporate ‘persons’ who bully and dominate our politics as just regular folks – should nevertheless raise an alarm. It should highlight a reality that has not yet dawned on exceptionalist America: that it, too, is in need of a pro-democracy movement.

*The US Supreme Court ruled that corporate funding of political broadcasts could not be limited.

Our new columnist, Mark Engler, is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website www.DemocracyUprising.com

New Internationalist issue 438 magazine cover This article is from the December 2010 issue of New Internationalist.
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