When comedian Stephen Colbert ran for president in 2008, his spoof campaign raised serious questions about the role of corporate backers in political campaigns. Colbert not only used airtime paid for by Comedy Central (owned by Viacom) to promote his candidacy, he secured official sponsorship from Doritos. To avoid direct corporate funding, though, Colbert claimed the chip brand was only sponsoring coverage of his campaign: the "Hail to the Cheese Stephen Colbert’s Nacho Cheese Doritos 2008 Presidential Campaign Coverage," that is. Though South Carolina eventually rejected his application to be included on the ballot, news media and followers of election law took up the question: Was Colbert’s campaign illegal? Many concluded that it probably was.
Since then, the legality of corporate involvement in elections has changed in dramatic, and still not entirely understood, ways. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Colbert announced that, “thanks to” the Supreme Court, he was finally free of such legal concerns: “If I run in 2012—no promises—I am going to leave my competition in the dust,” he said. “The nacho cheese dust.”
Democracy's Next Step
Colbert is not alone in using satirical comedy to draw attention to a decision that seems to ignore the fundamentals of democracy. Taking the implications of Citizens United to their logical extreme, a Washington, D.C.-based firm, Murray Hill Incorporated, has announced that it is running for Congress in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District.
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“Until now,” the company said in a statement, “corporate interests had to rely on campaign contributions and influence peddling to achieve their goals in Washington. But thanks to an enlightened Supreme Court, now we can eliminate the middle-man and run for office ourselves.”
In a campaign video posted on YouTube, Murray Hill Inc. tries out campaign slogans like, “The best democracy money can buy,” “Democracy’s next step,” and “The way we see it, corporate America has been the driving force behind Congress for years. But now it’s time we got behind the wheel ourselves.”
Eric Hensal, a former union organizer and current managing partner with Murray Hill Inc. (which, when not running for office, offers consulting services to organizations like the National Resources Defense Council and the Association of Construction Professionals) has volunteered to be the campaign’s “designated human.” Since corporations can’t sign paperwork or register to vote, Hensal will perform what the company calls “antiquated ‘human only’ procedures.”
“We want to get in on the ground floor of the democracy market before the whole store is bought by China,” said Hensal in a statement released by the "campaign."
William Klein, a political consultant and writer whose headlines on Huffington Post read like they ought to be on the Onion ("The Only Solution to Airport Security—Fly Naked!"), is the campaign's manager. Klein says he plans to use robo-calls and Astroturf methods to spread the campaign's message: that Murray Hill Inc., as a fair-minded corporate representative, pledges to always "put people second."
Brooke Jarvis wrote this article for YES! Magazine,
a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with
practical actions. Brooke is YES! Magazine's Web editor.
YES! Magazine's special issue, Stand Up to Corporate Power.