The uphill battle against Citizens United

Steven Rosenfeld writes: The movement to overturn the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United ruling and confront the doctrine of corporate personhood stands at a perilous crossroads.

Across the country, two distinct strategies are converging on Congress. More than a million people have signed online petitions. State legislators, city and township governments, Democratic Party groups and unions have sponsored and passed measures in 23 states demanding that Congress pass a constitutional amendment to reassert and elevate the political speech of ordinary citizens and roll back the growing political speech and legal privileges of corporations.

The two approaches can be seen in the protest signs and sound bites proclaiming, “Money is Not Speech” and “Overturn Corporate Personhood.” But these slogans are not calling for the same remedy, especially when transformed into legal language in 10 proposals that have been introduced in the current Congress.

The first would address campaign finance setbacks in a 35-year line of Supreme Court rulings, including the Citizens United ruling in 2010, which deregulated campaign spending by corporations and unions. The second would go further and seek to revoke the status of corporations as persons under the Constitution, rolling back more than a century of Supreme Court rulings under various amendments — not just those concerning political speech.

These two approaches expose an emerging split among progressives with deeper problems that go beyond the steep if not improbable political climb required to adopt any constitutional amendment: passage by two-thirds of Congress followed by ratification by three-quarters of state legislatures.

With a few exceptions, the growing movement to overturn Citizens United and revoke corporate personhood is not being taken seriously beyond America’s liberal communities. The guardians of American capitalism — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republican National Committee — do not even feel a need to attack it, unlike recent barbs aimed at the National Popular Vote campaign to reform the Electoral College.

Corporate America’s assessment that this activity is not yet a serious threat to their power is also shared by another key sector of the progressive spectrum. Many of the country’s top liberal constitutional scholars have been silent, as this bandwagon has gathered momentum. They sympathize with its goals but think its champions are not only overpromising to grassroots supporters but have not thought out what they want Congress to do. Nor do they think the frontline voices have done a good job explaining what is at stake beyond hurling bumpersticker slogans. In other words, they reach the same conclusion as America’s corporate titans: this clamor is not yet poised to upend the law behind America’s political system. [Continue reading…]

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