Corporate Influence: The End of American Democracy

When I was attending grade school in Southern California, our class said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, basking in the glory that was American freedom. We were taught about our government that was founded on behalf of its citizens, by it citizens. The importance and strength of our vote were stressed when learning about the basics of our government. Our vote mattered!

Not anymore. Today we vote for politicians who are bought by corporations. The Supreme Court ruling in favor of Citizens United in 2010 gave the voices of Corporate America the same freedom of speech that every American has. Corporations in the country are inanimate entities that exist on paper, not citizens, and should not have the same rights. Without the ability to attend a poll station, corporations have uncovered their way to affect the American political system. Money.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, PACs have raised more than $446 million so far for the 2016 presidential election cycle. In the congress races PACs, they have raised more than $979 million. Empowered by their “voice,” corporations now have major influence in government policy.

Our politicians now depend on corporate campaign finance to be competitive against their opponents for seats in Washington as well as across the country. Without their support, it is a near impossible feat to earn a position in our government. Newly elected junior members of congress attend an orientation held by their party leaders where they are “shown the ropes” of the typical day as an American congressmen. According to the Huffington Post, nine to ten hours is the prescribed workday, “of that, four hours are to be spent in ‘call time’ (requesting donations for the party) and another hour is blocked off for ‘strategic outreach,’ which includes fundraisers and press work.” In the remaining three to four hours, our elected officials finally get to work on the house and senate floors debating legislation.

When a congressman hits the floor ready to make the difference he promised to his constituents, he must first consider the fact that his job and very livelihood hinges on the donations he spent the first four hours of his day bringing in. This same senator or representative must also consider the fact that his decisions and arguments on the floor affect whether he gets his corporate funding for his re-election.

Today as I further my education in business school, I learn that the success of a business is a precisely measurable one. The report card for a business is based on the “return on investment” metric. The profitability of a company is fundamentally the reason why investors are interested in the first place. I don’t mean to say every business is a “boogyman.” What I will say is that without money, businesses are irrelevant, by definition.

I hear many politicians claim that the money they raise from corporations on Wall Street will not influence the decisions they make while sitting in elected office. Businesses don’t have some profound interest in American democracy. When shown that manufacturing is cheaper in another country they often do not hesitate to relocate. So why do they donate to politicians? Do they do it for their health? Absolutely. The very health of their corporation teeters on the absence of government regulation affecting their cash flow. Corporations will only invest in candidates that will maintain the status quo and not threaten their bottom line.

For an example of where corporations have used their influence, look no further than Senator Hillary Clinton and the Bankruptcy Bill beginning in the late 90’s. According to Elizabeth Warren, then a Professor at Harvard, now a Senator from Massachusetts, “Hillary Clinton raised $140,000 in campaign contributions from banking industry executives as she sought a Senate seat. ‘Big banks were now part of Senator Clinton’s constituency. She wanted their support, and they wanted hers — including a vote in favor of ‘that awful bill.’” She moved the bill forward claiming to “hold her nose” while she hoped for improvement. This bill was opposed by strong voices in her party, but the strongest voice was corporate dollars that got her the Senate seat. She needed to be re-elected. She needed the future funding from the industry.

In Australia, elections are publicly funded. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, “A candidate or Senate group is eligible for election funding if they obtain at least 4% of the first preference vote in the division or the state or territory they contested.” They are not beholden to the corporate influence as they would be if they campaigned in America. Politicians are free to fight for the promises they made to their constituents during the campaign. That is called democracy.

In our country, to get free and fair elections like those in Australia, the process is to add an amendment to the Constitution. First, it takes two-thirds of the House and Senate approve of the proposal it goes to the states for a vote. Then, during a convention of the states, three-fourths of them must affirm the proposed Amendment. Activist groups such as Wolf-PAC, have volunteers across the country calling their legislators asking for the issue to be brought up during congressional sessions. The process has already begun.

When learning from textbooks in grade school, the promise that my vote would be counted and that my voice would be heard was exciting. Now, I feel as though we need to set the politicians free from their dependence on corporate campaign contributions. Free and fair elections are a bi-partisan idea corrupted by the best interest of the corporations funding elections. This is a systemic problem only solved by campaign finance reform to include public funding of elections and restricting corporate donations.

In April, activists participated in Democracy Spring, a demonstration on the steps of the Capital Building, chanting “Money’s not speech, Corporations aren’t people!” Fight for your best interest. Vote for politicians not beholden to multi-national corporations!