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4 Positive, Practical Steps for Responding to Citizens United

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United was a major setback on First Amendment rights. What's a true patriot to do?
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U.S. Constitution

A grassroots coalition is proposing to amend the U.S. Constitution in order to curb corporate power.

Image courtesy of the National Archive and Records Administration.

First, BREATHE deeply and look out a window.

If you can’t see a mountain, river, forest, wetland, ocean, prairie, tundra, or even a patch of sky, close your eyes and imagine it. We aren’t any good for anything if we’re in a panic or funk.

Second, GET INFORMED.

Citizens United is merely the last straw in a haystack of (successful) corporate attempts to extend corporate constitutional “rights” to corporate persons.

The expansion of corporate rights began over 200 years ago as the anti-corporate fervor from the American Revolution began to fade. The U.S. Supreme Court blurred the distinction between  “natural persons,” or real, living human beings, and “artificial persons”—corporations—in 1886 when it conferred the 14th Amendment right of “equal protection of the laws” to an artificial person, a railroad corporation, in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. Since then, the Supreme Court has handed out other human rights to artificial persons (corporations), including the battery of First Amendment rights leading to Citizens United.

Since Santa Clara, literally hundreds—perhaps thousands—of local, state, federal, and international laws that attempt to protect our environment, our elections, our safety and health, and our right to organize have been overturned as a result of this doctrine. Armed with human rights and legal privileges, corporations have amassed enormous wealth and power and disabled democracy within all three branches of our government.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opens the floodgates to unlimited corporate and union spending on candidate elections by overturning state and federal restrictions on electioneering. This affects all elections: school board, zoning commissions, state and municipal judges, state representatives, congressional delegates, president. Bluntly and boldly, our elected officials will henceforth represent corporations first and people second if they want to serve in “public” office.

Our ExxonMobil-funded officials will tell us climate change is good for us as they open America for coal and oil extraction. Our Big Pharma- and Big Insurance-backed congressional delegates will tell us, “You don’t really want a public option” in health care reform. Our Monsanto-owned officials will give us growth hormones in milk and GMO diets. And so on.

To sum up: Our democratic process has been hijacked by corporations through illegitimate usurpation of rights intended for human persons. This is a call to action! It is time to change the rules.

Third, CHOOSE AN ACTION.

Insisting that people rule, not property, is a constant chore in a democracy. As Paul Hawken pointed out in Blessed Unrest, there are literally tens of thousands of citizens’ efforts committed to social justice and a sustainable future. We have a good base to build on! Now is the time to unite our efforts because we can’t achieve what we want as long as corporations are running our country (and the world).

Help spread the word through your networks and websites, as well as on the bus or in the check-out line. Contact your local media and ask them to report on this decision. Get involved with the grassroots movement to protect democracy from unchecked corporate power.

Last fall, in anticipation of a hostile decision in Citizens United, a group of experienced democracy activists met in San Rafael, California to lay the groundwork for amending the U.S. Constitution to end the constant erosion of people’s democratic rights by corporate persons. The Campaign to Legalize Democracy, a diverse and rapidly growing coalition of individuals and organizations, was born.

Its mission is to amend the U.S. Constitution to end the illegitimate legal doctrines that prevent the American people from governing themselves. First and foremost, the campaign will move to amend that only human beings are entitled to constitutional rights.

Ultimate Civics, one member of the coalition, is mapping groups that are working directly to abolish corporate personhood—corporations with human rights. Please let us know of such efforts and we will add them to the map.

Fourth, DO IT.

It cannot be overstated: The ruling in Citizens United leaves ordinary citizens little power to keep corporate influence out of democratic decision making. We must unite to reverse this outrageous ruling—and the underlying morally wrong premise that artificial persons are entitled to human rights.

All aboard for democracy!


Riki OttRiki Ott wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Riki shares her story of evolution from marine scientist to democracy activist in Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Chelsea Green, 2008). She lectures widely on The Democracy Crisis and is director of Ultimate Civics, a member of the Campaign to Legalize Democracy.

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