Most well-informed humanists, being generally progressive, understand that corporate personhood is a legitimate public policy issue in America today. It may not be the main issue that motivates and inspires their activism, but at some level most humanists “get it”–they understand that corporate institutions wield excessive power, that the situation has only gotten worse since the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling, and that something ought to be done about it.
Nevertheless, for most humanists, corporate personhood is understandably just one of many issues—and certainly not the most glamorous—underneath the umbrella of progressive politics, sharing space with concerns such as education, environmentalism, social and economic justice, human rights, and others. In this stew of public affairs, the issue of corporate personhood might sometimes seem relatively insignificant.
But it isn’t. In fact, if anything, most humanists and other progressives probably underestimate the importance of the issue of corporate personhood. It’s no exaggeration to say that corporate power is a key reason—if not the key reason—that public policy has lurched rightward in recent decades. Moreover, the sobering reality of modern America is that no broad progressive agenda will ever be possible until the issue is addressed.
It’s not that the issue of corporate power is necessarily more important than other public policy issues—after all, many issues are critically important—but the issue is strategically unique. The corporate power issue has several characteristics that set it apart from all others, making it strategically relevant in a broad way to all aspects of public policy. These characteristics include:
1. Corporate power is a systemic problem. The question of corporate power does not reflect a cultural problem (such as prejudice toward women or minorities), nor does it involve a debate over ordinary policy (such as, for example, lowering tax rates, providing health care, or entering a free-trade treaty). Instead, corporate personhood is a core, systemic issue that determines how power is distributed in society. The extent of institutional corporate power, relative to that of real people, determines how (and for whom) government operates. Corporations and industries are extremely wealthy, sharply focused on their goal of profit, and their interests often run counter to those of real people. Thus, if corporate power isn’t properly controlled, government and public policy will no longer serve human interests. This is why strategically the question of corporate power is a “jugular” issue for progressives. If the rights of corporations can be redefined in a way that ensures that they can’t dominate policymaking, the key systemic obstacle to progressive policy falls.
2. The impact of corporate power is direct and universal on all economic issues. Whether the issue is globalization, deregulation, government spending, tax policy, the rights of workers and consumers, or any of a host of other economic issues, the immense influence of corporations and their lobbyists cannot be overstated. Unlike most real people, corporate interests have access to policymakers and they routinely dictate the framework of most policy discussion, making any talk of citizen-based democracy a façade. Thus, when we talk about the corporate personhood issue, we’re really talking about virtually every economic issue imaginable. And note that other sectors of the progressive movement do not share this trait. Issues such as education, for example, or the anti-war movement, or women’s rights—while unquestionably important and having far-ranging effects—are not so directly entangled with every economic issue that comes along. Education policy certainly has an economic impact, as does militarism, as does sexism—but unlike corporate power, that impact is not as direct and pervasive across the entire spectrum of economic issues.
3. Corporate interests enable other anti-progressive efforts. While we tend to think of the corporate sector as being most relevant on issues relating to the economy, its impact is quite significant on social issues and other non-economic issues as well. Corporate interests provide resources to a wide variety of conservative activists, from religious right groups that oppose environmentalism, for example, to the anti-government Tea Party. Corporate money flows generously to those social conservative candidates who support the corporate agenda (and almost all do). Thus, even when it may appear that corporatism has little relevance, its influence is never far away. If religious conservatives and social conservatives did not have corporate bedfellows to help subsidize their political agenda, their influence would surely wane. Therefore, with corporate power neutralized, the voices of women and minorities, environmentalists, educators, and real people on a host of other progressive issues would inevitably be amplified.
Of course, corporate personhood isn’t the only issue that has a causal effect on the broader policy agenda. Efforts to address other issues—global warming, militarism, social justice, and many others—will often have an impact beyond the immediate policy question at hand. But even so, few if any other areas have such a wide-ranging effect on other issues, and the systemic nature of the corporate power issue—setting the parameters of political and economic power in a way that very much defines how society functions—is strategically unique and should not be dismissed. Long-term progressive change will be impossible until this fundamental issue is addressed.
There are of course other obstacles to human-centered public policy in America: cultural problems like racism, sexism, and religious fundamentalism being obvious examples. But it is difficult to argue that there is any more formidable opponent to human-centered policy than the corporate sector, with its unmatched resources and proven ability to get its way. Corporations and their endless armies of lobbyists, front groups, lawyers, and think tanks have spearheaded the modern American conservative movement, and they are directly responsible for the country’s wealth disparity, economic insecurity, and ineffective democracy. The sooner we recognize that fact, by elevating the issue to utmost importance in our strategizing, the sooner we may see real progress.