Corporations may be progressive, but that still doesn’t make them people
Conservatives were quick to pounce on liberals who cheered the corporations that objected to a Georgia bill that would have allowed some forms of discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) community. It could well have been corporate pressure that convinced Georgia Governor Nathan Deal to veto the bill.
What hypocrites, conservatives charged, for liberals to applaud this corporate political activity, which benefitted the progressive side, and condemn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which held that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend money independent of candidates to influence their election.
In fact, corporations before Citizens United had an important role to play in the U.S. political system — and they continue to play that role. Thoughtful critics of Citizens United don’t contend that corporations should have no political rights. Rather, they claim, corporations should be able to take political stands but not to turn their immense wealth into disproportionate political influence.
There is no doubt that corporations have become politically active, sometimes on the liberal side. On Tuesday, for example, PayPal withdrew its plans to expand in Charlotte, North Carolina, after the state legislature passed, and the governor signed, an anti-LGBT bill.
In addition to corporations speaking out against anti-LGBT legislation in Georgia and North Carolina, some corporations may not participate in this year’s Republican National Convention as they usually do — fearful of being associated with Donald Trump, who has been heatedly criticized for making sexist and racially charged comments. Then there’s Apple, which stood up against U.S. government demands (since withdrawn) that the company create software to hack into an iPhone of one of the San Bernardino, California, shooters.
Corporate political activism is nothing new. Before Citizens United, nothing would have stopped corporations such as Coca-Cola or American Airlines from speaking up against a discriminatory bill like Georgia’s. Nothing would have stopped General Motors from spending unlimited sums lobbying Congress or state legislatures for whatever bill its executives liked or disliked. Federal and some state laws require disclosure of this activity — but not limits.
Corporations could also have set up and run a political action committee, or PAC, to engage directly in political activities. The corporation could control who the PAC supported, paid its expenses and solicited contributions of up to $5,000 each from corporate executives, officers and shareholders.
What a corporation could not do before Citizens United was take the money the corporation made from selling cars or soda or airline tickets and use those considerable sums to help elect or defeat candidates for office.
That was a sensible limit, which the Supreme Court upheld in the 1990 case Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which Citizens United later overruled. In Austin, the court held that corporate spending could be limited to prevent the “corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the help of the corporate form and that have little or no correlation to the public’s support for the corporation’s political ideas.” In other words, the problem is not a corporation speaking up but rather using its wealth in a way that gives it too much sway over the political process.
To be sure, some critics of Citizens United would go further. One proposal, from the group Move to Amend, insists that corporations have no constitutional rights at all. That would mean the government could not only have compelled Apple to comply with its request, but it also could have seized Apple’s property if it disobeyed, or for any other reason. It would allow New York State, for example, to outlaw criticism of the state legislature by the New York Times, which is itself a corporation. These kinds of draconian views of corporate political rights are dangerous and deserve condemnation.
But many reformers do not go this far. If Americans were lucky enough to get a newly progressive Supreme Court — willing to overturn Citizens United, as well as parts of a 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo, which upheld the rights of individual billionaires to spend whatever they want on elections — Congress, state legislatures and local governments would then be free to limit very large spending by individuals and entities like corporations.
On the national level, Congress would be able to pass a law saying that a person could only contribute, or spend up to, $25,000 in any one federal election, and no more than $500,000 total in all federal campaigns over a two-year election cycle. Washington could even give all voters $100 in vouchers each election cycle so they could donate to federal candidates, political parties or interest groups.
Under such a proposed system, as under the campaign finance system before Citizens United, corporations can and should be part of the political conversation. But Americans should not allow for a system in which those with the greatest economic power can transform that power into vastly unequal political power.