The backlash from the attempted putsch by a Trump-incited mob attacking the U.S. Capitol as Congress was certifying Joe Biden’s win includes dozens of big companies cutting off political donations.
While a few companies rightly singled out those Republicans who rallied the insurrection and/or voted to decertify the Electoral College results, many others (such as Boeing and Microsoft) declared they are suspending for the moment all political donations. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s both-sides-ism that ducks all questions of responsibility.
So far the only company to go further is Charles Schwab, which shut its political action committee (PAC) “in light of a divided political climate and an increase in attacks on those participating in the political process.”
Refusing to accept Biden’s victory, despite numerous state recounts and court affirmations, Republicans moved into dangerous, unprecedented territory. The peaceful transition of power is a bedrock of our experiment in self-government. Those who reject it don’t deserve a cent.
Even the attempt at placing responsibility comes with plenty of asterisks. The political donations are on pause, not eliminated. They primarily affect PACs, not the other ways big business spends to influence policy. It’s still a small list of companies, however notable many are.
Most important, as Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik points out, the suspension doesn’t get at the real problem: the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. That 5-4 ruling in 2010 allowed essentially unlimited political spending via super PACs, which don’t face the limits of regular political action committees. Why? Because, the court said, corporations had a right to free speech through their funding.
The damage of Citizens United is undeniable.
The decision helped return the most dangerous and corrupting money to our elections, wrote Fred Wertheimer, president of the organization Democracy 21, in the Washington Post.
“It provided the wealthiest Americans with a predominant role in campaign financing by giving birth to super PACs permitted to collect multimillion-dollar checks,” he continued. “It allowed hundreds of millions of dollars in large, secret contributions to be spent to influence federal elections through the use of undisclosed ‘dark money’ given to nonprofits.”
Even if overturning Citizens United is unlikely — more so given the Trump Supreme Court appointees — the corporate suspension of contributions offers a moment for … let’s call it a thought exercise.
After all, we’ve lived with unlimited money in politics for only a little more than a decade. What if it were somehow possible to return to a pre-Citizens United America?
The ruling didn’t just overturn the bipartisan 2002 McCain-Feingold Act but also laws limiting political contributions by the wealthy and corporations in the wake of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.
Indeed, efforts to prevent the corruption of politics by big money go back a century or more.
The Tillman Act of 1907 was a landmark law of the Progressive Era, forbidding contributions from corporations and nationally chartered banks to federal candidates. Like so many Progressive measures, it was part of a backlash against the Gilded Age. It was signed into law by “trust buster” President Theodore Roosevelt.
Two years later, limits were strengthened by another law, which was amended in 1911 and 1925. This remained the foundational legislation until the reforms of the 1970s. Prohibitions on spending were extended to labor unions, once so mighty, by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.
In other words, the modern era has seen repeated efforts to keep big money out of politics, despite efforts by big business to swing the pendulum back and find workarounds.
Both public morality and corporations changed over the years.
A consensus existed for decades where the public frowned on corruption. This extended to large numbers of business leaders, such as General Motors’ management under Alfred Sloan and Charlie Wilson.
This is a generalization, of course. American business and politics always had their share of hucksters and charlatans. But they were the exception. The failures of laissez-fair leading to the Great Depression, the era’s fight for freedom from want and freedom from fear (as Franklin Roosevelt put it) and World War II created an ethos that we were all in it together.
Until recent decades.
Corporations became obsessed with short-term profits, merging away rivals, busting unions and gaming the political system with unprecedented funding for candidates that would do their bidding. This resulted in rising inequality, “capture” of industry and repeated market failures such as the Great Recession.
Still, as the repeated attempts from Watergate reforms to McCain-Feingold show, reform-minded lawmakers fought back.
Until the Citizens United decision.
Yet the “originalists” on the high court, who seek to interpret the Constitution based on the meaning at the time it was adopted, have a problem. Modern corporations didn’t exist in the late 18th century. It’s hard to believe any of the Framers would have accepted the notion that these powerful entities were “people” with free-speech rights as unlimited spending.
This is our thought experiment amid today’s threat to democracy.
The voluntary pullback from funding the most egregious “public servants” is a reminder that money in politics doesn’t just feed corruption, but it represents an existential threat to our democracy.
If the Supreme Court won’t address this problem — indeed makes it worse — a constitutional amendment is necessary.
Corruption and sedition were partly a result of poisonous ideology. But it was funded by corporations, who are temporarily shamed into a pause. That pause isn’t enough.