In his dissenting opinion to the United States Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, now-retired Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”
This simple statement cuts to the core of the corruption of the democratic process that has occurred following the unleashing of unrestricted, secretive and unaccountable spending to influence U.S. public policy. It is critical for Congress to act on legislation like the DISCLOSE Act and support a constitutional amendment to limit the corrupting influence of money in politics and restore the democratic system of governance to preserve a fair and free society for all.
By allowing for unrestricted political spending by corporations, Super PACs and wealthy individuals, the free speech of the average person and small-business owner is severely marginalized, leading many to become either disenfranchised or disillusioned by the system.
The Citizens United decision substantially increases the influence of large corporations and the ultra-wealthy in politics—both in determining who gets elected and how they make decisions once in office. The ruling asserts that the legal construct of the corporation, created at the state level, should have the same constitutional rights as people to “speak” through expenditures in elections.
Executives, owners, investors and business professionals understand that this sort of influence of money in politics is harmful to our businesses and to the economy. Business confidence in the fairness and equity of the system is the lifeblood of our economy and the democratic process. As any economist will tell you, institutions do matter, and the Citizens United decision severely distorts the public debate through which these institutions rely.
In recent independent polling released by the American Sustainable Business Council, 9 in 10 small business owners stated they had a negative view of the role money plays in politics. In addition, 66 percent of those polled voiced their opinion that the Citizens United decision was bad for small business, with only 9 percent saying it was good.
The basis for their concern in this area stems from the fact that, as small businesses, they would rather invest in their business than in the electoral process. They are also firm believers in a level playing field that allows for fair competition, and they know they cannot compete with the mountains of cash thrown at politicians by large corporations to influence policy. This greatly distorts the incentives for these small businesses as the policies favoring corporations greatly alter the landscape of markets in which all businesses compete.
Companies ought to be competing in the marketplace, not in our elections. And citizens ought to be in charge of the government, not corporations. Every company in America should be willing to say that. That’s what nearly 2000 business leaders endorsed when they signed the American Sustainable Business Council’s Business for Democracy petition calling for a constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens United decision. ASBC’s ally, Free Speech For People, joined in helping to enlist business leaders to sign this call.
Large established industries that spend heavily in campaigns are more likely to defend industries of the past than industries innovating for the future. They are more likely to be committed to old energy sources rather than making America a leader in clean and renewable energy. They are more likely to be companies utilizing overseas tax havens and not contributing their fair share of taxes to the economy, while also often receiving the largest government subsidies.
As small businesses, entrepreneurs and consumers themselves are the foundation that drive economic growth and job creation, allowing for them to be at such a disadvantage to big corporations is bad economic policy.
Businesses should support a politics of transparency and fairness, where citizens are players in our democracy. Our businesses thrive because they are competitive and well managed — not because they favored the winning candidate in the last election.
The core of democracy lies in active participation of the constituent members of a society in voicing their views on how a society and economy should function. The idea of freedom and liberty envisioned by the framers of the constitution was not a concept for corporations and oligarchs; it is a concept for the people and citizens of this nation, and it is time for the people to once again have a fair and equal voice in their democracy.
Domini is founder and CEO of Domini Social Investments, a mutual fund company serving socially responsible investors.