Our Journey Back to Colonization

1st in a two-part series on the condition of democracy on Independence Day 2003
by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

July 3, 2003

Lest we forget...

"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

Ring a bell? Any idea who said it?

It wasn’t Marx or Lenin. Not Mao or Castro.

It was none other than the father of American republicanism, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, like his revolutionary brethren, was deeply wary of corporate power. In order for the people to govern, he believed the "aristocracy of monied corporations" needed to be kept on a short leash, in the form of revocable charters that limited corporations to strictly commercial activities and required them to serve the public interest.

Jefferson famously articulated the need for a wall of separation between church and state. He less famously warned that if the people were to remain sovereign for long, a wall of separation between corporations and politics was essential.

That wall stood for the new nation’s first century. It came under assault in 1886, when a little-noticed headnote to a ruling written by a single U.S. Supreme Court justice became the law of the land.

Most everyone’s heard of Roe v. Wade. And Brown v. Board of Education. But chances are you haven’t come across Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company. It’s certainly not taught in many high school history classes.

In the infamous 1886 Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific decision, the Supreme Court dealt Jeffersonian democracy a severe blow by granting corporations the same rights as people under the 14th Amendment. Said another way, the court rewrote the constitution.

Fighting Bob La Follette understood Jefferson’s warning about a corporate aristocracy. In response to the political corruption of his day and the massive power of the timber and railroad barons, La Follette and his allies banned corporate contributions to political campaigns in 1906.

La Follette’s prohibition of corporate campaign donations in Wisconsin held up until 1996. That’s when corporate interests began running so-called "issue ads." These ads looked and sounded just like campaign ads, but thanks to an obscure footnote in a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the ads’ sponsors were able to skirt campaign finance disclosure laws.

No disclosure, no evidence of corporate contributions. La Follette’s ban was rendered meaningless overnight. A flood of corporate money has poured into Wisconsin politics ever since.

The issue ad loophole has its roots in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling. If Santa Clara is not the most profoundly anti-Jeffersonian court decision of all time, then Buckley surely is. It created a "magic words" test for campaign advertising that exempts interest groups from disclosure requirements if they avoid the use of words like "vote for" or "vote against" in their ads. Never mind that fewer than 5 percent of candidate-sponsored ads contain such words. Jefferson’s wall of separation between corporations and politics was demolished entirely.

Our country first shamefully embraced, then struggled mightily with, and ultimately exorcised a great anti-democratic demon - the repugnant notion that people can be property. But we have blithely accepted the similarly ridiculous proposition that property can be a person. Our inattention to the subtle erosion of a core democratic and republican principle – that "we the people" and only "we the people" are sovereign – must haunt Jefferson in his grave.

So too must the Federal Communications Commission’s June 2 decision to relax media ownership rules, allowing fewer and fewer corporations to control what we read, see and hear. Far from crushing the aristocracy of monied corporations in its birth, as Jefferson exhorted us to do, the FCC is handing out crowns.

Lest we forget...

"Unless the mass retains sufficient control over those entrusted with the powers of their government, these will be perverted to their own oppression, and to the perpetuation of wealth and power in the individuals and their families selected for the trust." – Thomas Jefferson, 1812

Part Two

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director
2000-2014

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