Thomas Paine vs. Citizens United: Free Speech Is for Individuals Only!

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

January 19, 2015

(A speech to the Free Congregation of Sauk County delivered on January 18, 2015)

It’s nice to see some old friends here today and some new faces. And it’s always fun to drive up to Sauk City. I remember bringing my dad up here, it must have been 30 years ago, to see the eagles, and the mergansers, and the goldeneyes, and I saw one of each this morning, which was neat.

It’s also a privilege to be back here speaking to this fantastic congregation in this spectacular building.

And congratulations on celebrating Thomas Paine for the past 163 years. You could not have chosen a more worthy Founder to honor.

Such celebrations are important. It’s why we do Fighting Bob Fest, which I was pleased to help bring back to Baraboo last September. I’m not sure it’s going to be there again this year; it may be in Madison but it won’t be in the Coliseum at the Alliant Center, which was more like a mausoleum. It’ll be outside somewhere, but it will continue. And we’ll let you know as soon as we can, and we hope to see you there.

We need to remind ourselves and our children that we’re not the first people ever to believe in liberty and equality and real democracy, that there is this great lineage of people here in the United States and in Wisconsin that we come from and that we can draw on.

And as dark as it is today in Madison, our political ancestors had it even tougher. As they prevailed, so shall we prevail.

In some fundamental sense, Fighting Bob La Follette was the great grandson of Thomas Paine, and we are the great grandchildren of La Follette.

But we have other ancestors, too.

We are also descended from Jefferson and Lincoln, and from Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony and Eugene Victor Debs and Belle Case La Follette and Jane Addams and FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate this weekend, and who himself has Thomas Paine in the family tree.

This is our family, and it’s nice to be among family.

And Thomas Paine has the rightful claim as head of this family.

He not only believed in the “free exercise of religion,” which I know resonates loudly with you, as it does with me, but he was a radical egalitarian, or, as his biographer, Harvey Kaye, up at UW Green Bay, called him, “a revolutionary democrat.” You should check out Harvey Kaye’s great book, “Thomas Paine and the Promise of America,” if you haven’t read it already. I just picked it up the other day, and it’s very informative.

Paine more than the other Founders saw democracy and equality, along with liberty, as the goals of this nation, whose cause, he said, “was the cause of all mankind.” In fact, he understood that you couldn’t have genuine liberty without democracy or equality.

And it’s true today: If you don’t have a job or a house to live in, how free are you? And if we don’t have an equal say in who gets elected, do we really have full democracy and can we really protect and enjoy our liberty?

Paine saluted the “genius and talents of common people.”

He insisted on freedom and representation for the poor, and said that “freedom must have all or none, and she must have them equally.”

And he campaigned for a government not for the propertied classes but “for the public good.”

Thomas Paine would not be happy today, 278 years after his birth, to know that his beloved America, which was going to, in his words, “begin the world over again,” is now beset by an old affliction, an affliction he would have recognized from his days in England in the mid-eighteenth century: the affliction of aristocracy.

He denounced both monarchy and aristocracy, writing that they were “frauds and impositions upon mankind.”

Well, we have an aristocracy today, my friends. And it is indeed a fraud and an imposition. It puts the mock in democracy, and this fraud, this mockery, was sanctified by the U.S. Supreme Court in its outrageous decision in Citizens United on Jan. 21, 2010, almost exactly five years ago to this date.

Paine saw an America where “the poor are not oppressed, the rich are not privileged.” But the poor don’t have it so good today in America, and the rich are definitely privileged.

And the corporations that Thomas Paine’s friend Thomas Jefferson warned about are even more privileged. Jefferson, according to former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, “ famously fretted that corporations would subvert the Republic.” And Stevens provided the quotation from Jefferson from 1816: “I hope we shall
. . . crush in [its] birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations.”

Well, the aristocracy of our monied corporations is no longer in its infancy but is now fully grown, and it is devouring our democracy.

I got that quote from Justice Stevens’s dissent in the Citizens United case, which I’d urge everyone here to read. It’s easy enough to find on Google. He said our Founders “had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind.”

But the majority of the Supreme Court in that 5-4 decision did have trouble distinguishing the two. In fact, it said there was no difference between them. It said corporations were persons and money was speech, and from these syllogisms, it concluded that corporations and unions and some nonprofits have the right to spend an unlimited amount of money to try to elect the candidates of their choice or to trash those they don’t like.

And so the floodgates opened up and our democracy is drowning. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been overflowing into political campaigns—and much of it is dark money that is almost impossible to trace.

Here in Wisconsin, we’ve seen the consequences.

The Koch Brothers have poured $5.5 million into the state since that decision, not only to help Scott Walker but also to take out a couple of school board members on the Kenosha School Board. That is how deep into the political process they are digging their grimy hands.

GTac, Gogebic Taconite, the out-of-state mining company that’s proceeding with its iron mine up north, gave $700,000 to the Republican Party of Wisconsin during the recalls, after one of Walker’s agents put the arm on them. It was an easy call for them, though. GTac, after all, helped draft the mining bill that the Republicans subsequently pushed through!

The School Privatizers spent $850,000 to elect Republicans to the state legislature just last fall. You know, you hear the rightwing complain about the public schools in Milwaukee, but a couple of the fly-by-night privatized schools have taken tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of taxpayer money and then shut their doors and ran away with the dough.

And it’s not just the private companies that are in the game as never before. So, too, are the ultrarich, the 0.001 percent. Last September Judge Rudolph Randa, citing Citizens United, lifted the $10,000 ceiling on the total amount that any individual could give in one election season in Wisconsin. The sky is now the limit, and some of the multi-multi-multi-millionaires are touching the sky.

--Diane Hendricks, the CEO of ABC Supply in Beloit, sent the Wisconsin Republican Party $1 million after Randa’s decision.

--Sheldon Adelson , who is not even from Wisconsin, he’s the casino magnate in Las Vegas, sent $650,000 to the Wisconsin Republican Party, which turned around on the same day and gave $400,000 to Scott Walker’s campaign.

--Robert Rasmus, aperson I’d never even heard of before I came to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, is the CEO of the Hi-Crush frac-sand mining company, which is doing so much to scar the landscape and pollute the air in western Wisconsin. He gave $200,000 to the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

And it’s a bipartisan problem, this problem of money in politics. For instance, a liberal philanthropist in Milwaukee gave $1 million to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin after Randa’s ruling.

Politics now is a game that is played almost exclusively by corporations and billionaires and multi-multi-millionaires. The average citizen of Wisconsin, who could never dream of giving $10,000 to a political party, much less $1 million, has been aced out of the game. Citizens United is trying to reduce us all to bystanders.

But fortunately, many people in Wisconsin won’t take this lying down, and we’re not standing idly by. We’ve joined a great national movement to get money out of politics, to overturn Citizens United, to amend the Constitution to say, once and for all, that corporations are not persons, and that money is not speech, and that we the people, through our elected representatives, can regulate advertising during political campaigns.

In 54 villages, towns, cities or counties across the state, the voters or their elected officials have passed resolutions saying exactly that. And the votes haven’t even been close. They’ve passed by overwhelming margins every time.

I’m not going to call the whole roll, but here’s a sampling.

It passed in Madison with 84 percent, and you might say, “Well, that’s just Madison, with its aging hippies, and those leftwingers at the UW.” But it also passed in Whitewater with 84 percent.

It passed in Edgerton with 87 percent.

It passed in Ft. Atkinson with 77 percent.

It passed in Eau Claire County with 70 percent.

It passed in Chippewa County with 68 percent.

It passed in Appleton, home of Joe McCarthy, with 74 percent.

It passed in Ripon, home of the Republican Party, with 79 percent.

It even passed in deepest red Waukesha with 69 percent.

Thomas Paine would be proud. He believed in the people. And he believed in agitation.

Paine was an optimist. And why not? He saw the divine right of kings collapse; in fact, he helped make it crumble!

He wrote: “From what we now see, nothing of reform on the political world ought to be held improbable.”

We should heed his words. We should not get discouraged. We should push on, and we should make the divine right of corporations crumble.

We can have real democracy, we can have real equality, we can have real liberty in Wisconsin—and in America.

As Paine continues to remind us, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

So let’s get on with it!