You Better Hope a Corporate Personhood Amendment Is Possible

If Don Hazen is right, we’re all screwed.

Hazen, the longtime editor at AlterNet, told his readers recently that they shouldn’t waste their time pursuing a constitutional amendment to address the problem of corporate personhood. It’s not that Hazen feels excessive corporate power is an unimportant issue—he just insists that a constitutional amendment is an unrealistic goal, so he tells readers that they should address the issue through other avenues.

If you believe there are alternatives to a constitutional amendment as a means of taming corporate power, then perhaps you could accept Hazen’s analysis and walk away with a glimmer of hope. The problem, however, is that when it comes to the question of America’s corporatocracy, there really is no long-term solution that doesn’t include a constitutional amendment. If Hazen is correct that an amendment is impossible, then progressive public policy is almost certainly doomed.

Hazen even concedes that change is needed at the constitutional level, though his solution would be to strive for new justices on the Supreme Court. If we can replace the Roberts-Scalia-Alito-Thomas-Kennedy conservative majority with more liberal justices who would overturn the Citizens United ruling and other problematic precedents that empower corporate “persons” at the expense of real humans, this theory goes, effective democracy and rational public policy might be within reach.

Besides restacking the Supreme Court, Hazen’s alternatives to a constitutional amendment are relatively modest. The only one that addresses substantive policy—a presidential executive order requiring all government contractors to disclose campaign financing—is sensible, but hardly a game-changer. His other suggestions are more process-oriented: grassroots organizing; street demonstrations; and more effective activism to win real commitments from progressives, not just meaningless superficial clicks on online petitions.

If we read Hazen closely, however, it seems he’s less bothered by progressives who sincerely wish for a constitutional amendment than by the organizations and leaders who use the issue cynically for fundraising. This is surely worthy of criticism, but that point alone doesn’t logically lead to the conclusion that the issue should be dropped as unrealistic.

In fact one could argue—and I do—that an amendment is both necessary and possible.

The Necessity of Reform

On the necessity question, we need only look around to see how the American system is increasingly owned and controlled by corporate interests. This fact has become axiomatic, no longer even debatable. The immense wealth of the corporate sector ensures that its interests will supersede those of real humans, as almost all the lawyers and lobbyists on Capitol Hill are on its payroll. Lip service will be paid to democracy and people power from time to time, but all meaningful activity in Washington—whether multi-million-dollar defense contracts, discussion of regulatory issues, or the drafting of legislation—occurs under the watchful eye of corporate America with no offsetting advocacy on behalf of ordinary citizens.

As I point out in my forthcoming book, Fighting Back the Right, any mere statutory reform effort to rein in corporate power should always be considered temporary at best, because any such measure that seriously threatens corporate power will be met with relentless, well-financed opposition. This will come in the form of litigation, lobbying, public relations, and outright political opposition for those candidates who don’t support the corporate position.

Indeed, corporate interests are not only rich and powerful but also vigilant at a level far beyond that of real humans. Consider, for example, how Wall Street relentlessly worked to dispose of the Glass Steagall Act, which was passed to regulate banking in 1933 as part of the New Deal.  Soon after its passage and for decades thereafter, corporate interests attacked the law in the courts and in Congress, watering it down and creating loopholes until they finally succeeded in overturning it completely in 1999.

To be sure, when participatory democracy is hitting on all cylinders—which isn’t very often—good reforms can happen, but corporate interests know that any such progressive tide can be withstood. Even when real humans occasionally win big legislative reform victories, the corporate sector has the patience and resources to regroup and come back another day—and if necessary another and another. This will always be the case until the very nature of corporate personhood—and the corporate-government-citizen relationship—is redefined.

Hazen more or less admits as much when he points to the need for a more liberal Supreme Court. This goal is certainly worthy, but it’s Hazen’s underlying argument—that a constitutional amendment is delusional and that a re-stocked Supreme Court is all we can really hope for—that causes many progressives to part company with him.

Step One: Progressive Unity

In fact, if a corporate personhood amendment seems unrealistic in today’s political dialogue, the main reason is simple: progressives have not made it a central priority.

The first step in the process is for all corners of the progressive world—not just those directly engaged in the corporate personhood issue but all those working for economic justice, labor, environmentalism, women’s rights and reproductive freedom, peace, race issues, LGBT issues, and every other niche under the wide progressive banner—to recognize that fighting the corporatocracy is essential to their efforts, and that a unified commitment to a constitutional amendment is absolutely necessary for progressive values to gain permanent traction in policymaking. Unifying all sectors of the progressive movement behind the constitutional amendment issue would build the political base and momentum needed to drive the issue, in Washington and across the nation.

And this shouldn’t be seen as a sacrifice for the various progressive interests, because uniting behind the issue would be smart politics for all of them. Taming corporate power, in the electoral process and elsewhere, would undoubtedly lead to a more progressive environment that responds to the needs of real humans. As most progressives know, corporate tentacles obstruct virtually every area of public policy in one way or another—promoting privatization against the public interest, wasting public resources on immense military spending and other government handouts to corporations, opposing sensible environmental measures, opposing workplace regulations that benefit real people and families, nurturing anti-intellectualism, and countless other areas. An amendment addressing corporate personhood is an amendment that promotes all aspects of progressivism.

Step Two: Redirected Populism

Progressives alone may not be enough to get the amendment over the finish line though.

There is another pocket of political power in the United States that’s just waiting to be tapped: a tremendous mass of angry populism that is currently not aligned with a progressive agenda, but could be. As progressives facepalm in response to the anti-intellectual ranting of the Tea Party, it’s easy to forget that many of these misguided masses are nevertheless potential allies. Even if they seem scared, angry, and irrational, most of them are no lovers of big corporations, and most of them understand that institutional power is a problem. That is a starting point.

Quite frankly, the feelings of fear and anger of many average voters are not unwarranted—they have lost control of their country and economic insecurity is their reality. Sure, rabid anti-government activism is an overly simplistic answer, but progressives should not be dismissive of these citizens and their anger—instead we should be thinking about how to redirect it.

Average Americans, even those who rant about big government, are skeptical of big corporations and the influence they wield, and progressives need to address that skepticism. A serious effort to inform voters about how corporate power is a key to the problem in America, so that the issue becomes a focal point in public debate in discussion, could result in significant populist momentum shifting toward a corporate personhood amendment.

Nobody is suggesting that the wing-nut element of the Tea Party can or should be recruited to the progressive movement, but there is a hint of elitism in progressives who will not even consider engaging with the wider working class and rural populations that, for various reasons, find some aspects of Tea Party rhetoric appealing. Are we so incapable of communicating our ideas that we can’t even consider the possibility of redirecting the anti-government vitriol of poorly informed voters toward a more rational understanding that corporate power must also be tamed?

A corporate personhood amendment epitomizes a commonsense measure that is in the interest of the vast majority of ordinary Americans. It would restore democracy and ensure that public policy is human-centered, not shaped by and for non-human institutions. There is absolutely no reason to view it as delusional or futile.

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