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Pepsi Presents: New Zanzibar…courtesy of the Supreme Court

Posted by Brandon McKoy on January 22, 2010

The number of people who have any idea what the title of this article refers to is undoubtedly less than the total membership of Team Leno (I’m with COCO). It is a quote from an episode of The Simpsons where the family travels to Africa. While arriving on the plane, the flight attendant announces to the passengers:

“Please prepare for our landing in Tanzania.”

(someone hands her a note)

“Excuse me. It is now called New Zanzibar.”

(someone hands her another note)

”I’m sorry. It is now called Pepsi Presents New Zanzibar.”

It is a light jab at the general acknowledgment that corporations are taking over anything they can get their hands on, and would even conspicuously rule an entire country if they could. Back when the episode aired on April 1st, 2001, the gag didn’t click (with me at least) as any kind of foreshadowing moment. Unfortunately, on January 21st, 2010, the once fictional situation became a very real possibility.

In 1907 Congress passed the Tillman Act, prohibiting corporations from contributing money directly to political campaigns. In the 1990 case Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting “corporations from using treasury money to support or oppose candidates in elections did not violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” They based their decision on the notion that “corporate wealth can unfairly influence elections.” In 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act in honor of it’s sponsors.

The act addressed two key issues:

  • The increased role of soft money in campaign financing, by prohibiting national political party committees from raising or spending any funds not subject to federal limits, even for state and local races or issue discussion

  • The proliferation of issue advocacy ads, by defining as “electioneering communications” broadcast ads that name a federal candidate within 30 days of a primary or caucus or 60 days of a general election, and prohibiting any such ad paid for by a corporation (including non-profit issue organizations such as Right to Life or the Environmental Defense Fund) or paid for by an unincorporated entity using any corporate or union funds.

In 2003 the Court upheld the constitutionality of McCain-Feingold in the case McConnell v. Federal Election Commission.

In 2010, in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to remove all limits on corporate and union campaign financing, citing that it was unconstitutional and in direct violation of free speech (you can read the entire decision here). This decision overturned years upon years of legislation and Court precedence. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker’s corporate identity…No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations.” With this ruling, corporations and unions are free to inject unlimited money into the political system. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his descent, “The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation…[it’s] a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding…While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

In the minority’s 90-page descent, Justice Stevens acknowledges that with the Court’s ruling, corporations are now free to support any candidate they choose using as much force and power through financial capital as they please. In other words, if this ruling goes unchanged and avoids any restrictions, corporations will literally have the ability to directly determine who wins elections. This means that if Exxon wanted to defeat a candidate who was anti-oil drilling and pro-green energy, they could literally spend billions of dollars in negative advertising against that candidate. If Aetna wanted to make sure that Joe Lieberman stayed in office forever and ever, reliably throwing a wrench in any health reform legislation to hit the floor, they could use the depth of their finances to support him and his campaign in any way possible. Even though Justice Kennedy seems to not think these scenarios are a negative addition to the political process, I’d have to say that it’s a sufficient governmental interest to prevent such things from occurring.

So where do we go from here? Some say that the worry over corporations having unlimited influence in American politics is overblown and that the ruling isn’t as effective as some think. Even though I disagree with this, I certainly hope those who believe it are right and that I am wrong on every level. I wrote this because even though many people are aware of the ruling, many more are not. Even some who are aware of the ruling don’t fully understand the possibilities of resulting repercussions. Any political science-fiction nightmare you can think of now has a real possibility of occurring. Despite the fact that it sounds incredibly dumb, I don’t particularly mind attending a stadium named Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres. However, I don’t think I’ll feel all that well if, upon my descent into Puerto Rico, the flight attendant says, “Welcome to Puerto Rico, brought to you by State Farm. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” You know what though…that will probably be the least of my worries if there ever comes a day when that is the case.

Hopefully Congress is able to put some restrictions on this ruling, for if they are not, I fear an unruly future full of George Orwell’s greatest imaginations. Upon hearing the ruling I immediately thought of a telling quote by Abraham Lincoln:

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country; corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in High Places will follow, and the Money Power of the Country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the People, until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war.”

Lincoln (supposedly) said this in 1864. Now, 146 years later, his monument sits only a mile away from the source of his
anxiety. Will this decision send the country on a path of corporate rule and eventual revolution? You can be certain that if corporations and unions take full control of our politics, people will not sit idly by. This is an issue on which both Liberals and Conservatives, Progressives and Tea Party Patriots, can agree. There is no room for corporate influence in our politics. They already have a ridiculous amount of power in our everyday lives. From supposed brand loyalty to product monopolies, corporations know everything about us. They know what we like and how to make us like something else (which is usually more expensive and of cheaper quality). What do you and I do before their ability to control what makes us tick lulls us into an apathetic acceptance of Democracy as a simple choice between a small or large Sprite? I’ve never had such a pit in my stomach upon hearing political news as I have upon hearing the Supreme Court’s ruling, and I hope that I am not the only one who still feels that pit eating away at me. Right now I don’t know what to do except sit back and see how this all develops, to see how people react to what I consider to be a radically influential decision. Until then, I think I might take a trip to Tanzania. I’d like to see how it is now, before there’s a Pepsi Challenge on every corner.

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Now playing: Rage Against the Machine – Take the Power Back
via FoxyTunes

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