Jinane E. '26
How corporate ties and lobbying have become a doorway into infiltrating American democracy… all with the swish of a pen.
In the United States, the American people have seen corporations’ involvement in politics and the high court fluctuate over the centuries. The 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, guaranteed companies equal treatment under state tax laws and equal protection - mainly railroad companies, who sought to benefit from their newfound constitutional protections that would later lead them to possess more power than any individual. On January 26, 1907, Congress passed a law banning corporate involvement in federal election campaigns. The law was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt and held for 70 years. However, 71 years later, the Supreme Court ordered in the case First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend money on state ballot initiatives. States could no longer impose specific limitations on donations from corporate entities in ballot initiative campaigns. But the last blow came from the 2010 5-4 Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, blocked the government from regulating independent spending for political campaigns by corporations. The outcome of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the floodgates for corporate involvement in government, political donations from individuals, and money-spending at a record level in state, and local elections.
Logic points to the fact that if a corporation is an association of individuals, not a living, breathing human, they, therefore, cannot be a person.
Nonetheless, today, corporations enjoy the right to corporate personhood and are viewed legally and therefore constitutionally, as individuals. Corporate personhood has led to countless scandals, such as the 2020 presidential election. Over the past 14 years, Chevron, the oil and gas company, has donated millions of dollars to Republicans hell-bent on overturning the 2020 election. Chevron, its workers, and its PAC doled out $1.1 million to 97 GOP legislators during the attempted unseating of democracy. Corporate personhood allows corporations like Chevron to get away with their actions because they enjoy similar freedoms to regular Americans. The economic power of corporations has been unrightfully mixed with political ambitions, resulting in a flawed notion of a government ‘for by the people, by the people.’ Politicians in Congress have only one objective: to please entities that will grant them funding for their next campaign. In 2021, it was estimated that there were more than 12,000 lobbyists active in America. Due to the fact that corporate institutions have accumulated substantial influence in American governmental affairs, to curtail the manipulation of dark money, corporation’s right to corporate personhood must be revoked.
Before Citizens United v. FEC, 80% of Americans agreed with the statement “I am worried that large political contributions will prevent Congress from tackling the important issues facing Americans today, like the economic crisis, rising energy costs, reforming health care, and global warming.” In Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-RI) book, Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy, he explains, “corporations of vast wealth and remorseless staying power have moved into our politics to seize for themselves advantages that can be seized only by control over the government.” Because of corporations’ long game in American politics, today’s government is merely subject to their will, implementing orders down a chain from the federal level to the state level, and impacting the entire nation in the process. The congressional seats are merely there for decoration; the senators and congresspeople are just ornaments in influential corporations’ endless grab for power. Democracy is a game to big businesses, and Congress is playing right into their hands.
The most pivotal outcome of Citizens United v. FEC was the creation of super PACs. PAC stands for political action committee, an organization that raises money for a political cause through donations. Unlike candidates, PACs have no limitations on expenditure or collection of funds. Moreover, super PACs are required to disclose their donors, however, their donors could include dark money groups which can result in a PAC’s source being unclear. Super PACs can sometimes even strongly impact elections.
Following the attempted coup of January 6th on Capitol Hill, OpenSecrets conducted an analysis on CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) endorsers and found that rally organizers sponsored 2022’s CPAC. A group called Tea Party Patriots Action which participated in the January 6th terror attack was a $35,000 supporting sponsor of this year’s CPAC. Moms for America was among the many conservative groups that helped organize the January 6th attack, the second highest sponsor of CPAC, right behind Fox Nation. As well as Tea Party and Moms for America, Turning Point, a non-profit student group, is one of the 11 core groups that organized the protest and was also a $15,000 contributing sponsor of the 2022 CPAC. During the 2020 election, CPAC spread election fraud claims and financially supported many of the politicians spreading those rumors. Fundamentally, super PACs have heightened partisanship and government inaction and are capable of even delaying democracy. This problem of electoral influencing worsens with dark money.
Dark money refers to political spending by a non-profit where the financial source is secret or undetermined. The iniquitous network of dark money traps voters in order to obscure the identity and intent of the sponsor behind campaign ads seen on television. The Brennan Center for Justice states in the top ten most competitive 2014 Senate races, more than 71 percent of the outside spending on the winning candidates was dark money. The 2012 election cycle saw $300 million dollars of funding from dark money campaigns. The reprehensible system American politics has adopted betrays the very idea of a free republic. Furthermore, in the 2016 election, it is estimated that one out of every eight dollars that went to super PACs came from corporate sources. The fact that corporate entities and a few ultra-wealthy figures are bending Congress to their will to pass or reject legislation is inherently unethical. Corporations’ ever-tightening grasp on Congress has and is delaying the advancement of legislation – progress the American people desperately need.
Even after substantial amounts of incriminating evidence have been unearthed, the government has not addressed its problem yet. Not only are financial firms rewriting laws to their benefit, but energy companies are also getting into the heads of politicians and reaping the rewards.
For the last fifty years, big oil has put in millions to delay clean energy and defend its debased practices. In fact, in 2021, footage released by Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s investigative platform, exposed ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, aggressively attempting to enshroud the facts. Keith McCoy, ExxonMobil’s senior director for federal relations, was tricked by undercover reporters posing as a job recruiting firm. McCoy revealed Exxon’s war against climate action, saying the oil giant had been working to undermine key aspects of the American Jobs Plan, the Biden Administration’s flagship strategy to combat climate change. He portrayed Biden’s plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions as “insane” and then asked the question, “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. Did we join some of these “shadow groups” to work against some of the early efforts on climate? Yes, that’s true.” McCoy then admitted to how big oil is manipulating Washington, saying “When you have an opportunity to talk to a member of Congress, you have bait and you throw that bait out, [there are] all these opportunities.”
It is essential to realize Americans do not live in a democracy. We live in a petri dish of corporate corruption. We must stand up to corporations and say democracy is not for sale. We cannot hope for change with the current system; we must invent an entirely new one by revoking the corporations’ right to corporate personhood.
This article first appeared in the Historian's Tribune.