By Mitch Albom: The high court, in a bitterly divided, 5-4 decision, aligned on conservative/liberal lines, just gave those with money infinitely more power.
This was in junior high, the student council elections. Each candidate got two posters to hang in the hallways. Buttons were forbidden. Flyers were a no-no. Two posters. Same size. After that, it was up to you to convince voters.
It remains, three decades later, the smartest election system I've ever seen.
My junior high could teach the Supreme Court a thing or two, after this past week's disastrous decision to remove campaign contribution limits on corporations and unions.
Look. Let's state this clearly before your eyes glaze over at "campaign finance." Money talks. Money runs the world. Money dominates politics.
And the high court, in a bitterly divided, 5-4 decision, aligned on conservative/liberal lines, just gave those with money infinitely more power.
Or, in junior high school terms, they get a million posters, you still get two.
It would be laughable if it wasn't so sad. Cloaking itself in the First Amendment, the Supreme Court rushed through this decision, based it flimsily on a case involving a film and knocked down a half-century's worth of wise, hard-fought limits on how much influence a corporation can have in choosing our leaders. One justice defended the ruling by claiming the First Amendment clearly prohibits punishing "citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech."
Let me ask you something: Does anyone consider Exxon Mobil an association of citizens? Goldman Sachs? The UAW? You want an association of citizens, go to a PTA meeting or a soup kitchen volunteer line. Don't look on the stock exchange.
Yet by acting as if these poor corporations were being denied their fundamental rights, the door is now open to spend whatever they want on ads and commercials up to the moment you pull the lever.
Oh, don't worry, you can, too. Of course, if by "you" we mean the shoe salesmen or truck driver, you may be outspent by oh, say, a million bucks.
The old laws, though imperfect, at least kept some walls in place. President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1907, had enough foresight to sign legislation barring corporate contributions to federal campaigns — lest a handful of businesses all but buy a president. Over the years, other laws and court rulings upheld an arm's length distance.
Now that's gone. Businesses basically can tell a candidate "either you support what we want, or we'll keep throwing money at your opponent."
And before you say, "Money isn't everything," ask yourself how many candidates you bother to hear in person or read about in depth. TV and radio increasingly form people's opinions, and with the spigots now open, corporations can bury a candidate in the hate-spewing negative ads that typify today's elections.
You won't just be running against Joe Opponent, you might be running against Merrill Lynch.
Now, of course, all corporations are not evil. But let's be honest. History shows us the group that pollutes usually has more money than the group that wants to stop pollution. The group that benefits from high health care costs usually will be richer than the group that wants to keep costs down. The group interested in war profits will have more than the group interested in peace — and so on and so on. You see where this goes.
And it's not as if these corporate CEOs don't get a say in politics. They get to vote and contribute the same as any other American.
But if corporations were the same as citizens, why do they have their own tax rate? If people were the same as corporations, why aren't people split into pieces and traded on an exchange?
Corporations exist to make money, and whatever stands in their way is bad — even if it's good for the average American. Can anyone truly argue that they deserve more influence in American life?
Yet now — in 2010 — is the time to hand more power to corporations and the often disgraceful lobbyists they employ? Now? When 103 years ago, lawmakers had the foresight to put clamps on big business? Now we do this?
There is a dangerous, misguided movement out there that if we just let business rule the nation, all will be well — markets will take care of themselves, health care, jobs, just let business handle it. You know who says that the loudest? Business.
And now, it can say it even louder. It can shout down any candidate who opposes it. What happened to "of the people, by the people, for the people?" I think I last saw it on a poster in a junior high school hallway.
Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Readers may write to him at: Detroit Free Press, 600 West Fort Street, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.