At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Americans had to decide how they would be represented in the federal government. Crucial to the question was the calculation of a state's population. Southerners wanted to count their slaves even though they were not free to vote. Doing so, however, would obviously amplify the influence of free Southerners to the detriment of everyone else. A compromise was reached, found in Article 1 of the Constitution, which declared slaves three-fifths of a person.
We may be returning to that kind of compromise. The Supreme Court recently decided, for example, that money is speech and corporations are people, and thus that it would violate their constitutional rights to regulate their spending for political purposes. The commonality concerns the representation of the powerless through corporate elites and the magnification of their influence in politics. In the case of the three-fifths compromise, any implied representation of slaves was had through their oppressors. In the case of Citizen’s United, any implied representation of a corporation’s shareholders and employees (who also contribute to the corporation’s coffers) is had through its governing elites. Moreover, their influence is magnified relative to the rest of us as they can contribute to political activities both as individuals and by using the funds of the corporation.
On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney said, “Corporations are people, my friend,” because people work there and everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Neil Cavuto, Charles Payne and Sandra Smith at Fox Business think it obvious. “When we rescued GM,” Cavuto asks rhetorically, “we rescued what — cars?” Payne considers that everyone in a corporation has the same overarching goals; that there is an identity among the shareholders, the workers and those who make the spending decisions. Smith notes that when companies thrive, everyone thrives.
A shared interest in the corporation’s success, however, doesn’t guarantee that all who work within will agree on its political vision as it pertains to the corporation or anything else, such as employment policy, health care, taxes, the environment or foreign affairs.
Critical of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s war chest when running against him, Romney said “to get that kind of money, you’ve got to cozy up to all of the special interest groups and that kind of relationship has an influence on the way you’re going to vote.”
The magnification of corporate influence over the individual takes American politics a step away from classical liberalism (from which democracy and today’s conservatives and liberals both spring) and towards fascism. The word’s origin comes from the Italian word for bundle. Individuals were considered sticks, weak and unimportant, but tied together in bundles — in corporate groups — they gained significance. Denouncing Western democracy and egalitarianism, fascists dismantled political parties in favor of representation through state-sanctioned corporate groups.
Under the Franco regime in Spain, Spaniards were represented in the Cortes Españolas through their associations, not as individuals. Being overwhelmingly Catholic, this meant that unelected church authorities, among other institutions, had a guaranteed number of seats. And really, by the logic of the older Romney and the folks at Fox Business, that wasn’t so unreasonable. I mean, churches are people, my friend.
And so, too, are families comprised of people. When women sought the franchise, for example, some critics considered it redundant; their men already represented their interests.
In fact, there are so many potential corporate entities to which we belong that by this logic it’s hard to see that the individual matters at all. And yet, the documents we will remember, on Friday, don’t mention them. Instead, we’ll commemorate that bold assertion of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and we’ll honor the Constitution, which begins “We the people,” because it’s only in fiction and Citizen’s United that some people are more equal than others.
Mary Barker teaches political science at Syracuse University’s study abroad program in Madrid, Spain, and at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas. She is currently on leave to conduct research and is teaching at Salt Lake Community College.