At 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2013, I was sitting in my high school’s large presentation room, facing one of the most remarkable modern American intellectuals. The man who my peers and I were staring at on the projector screen was Noam Chomsky, an eighty-two year old American political commentator. My history teacher had arranged an open discussion with Chomsky, and he spoke to us about a range of current issues including threats to democracy. Chomsky intriguingly addressed the influence of private interests in politics today, which prompted me to learn about the issue. After researching, I had examined quite enough evidence to realize that Chomsky was correct in his claim. The intrusive presence of private interests in American politics is the largest threat to democracy because it directly garners higher priority than civilian interest and contributes to deceiving voters.
Earlier this year, a man named Jonathan Frieman was halted by a police officer for driving his car in the carpool lane, apparently alone in San Jose, California. In his own defense, Frieman claimed that he legally had two persons in his car because he had corporate papers in his car. Frieman’s logic comes from the legal concept of corporate personhood. Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations deserve the right to free speech due to the legal basis that a corporation is legally considered a person in the Citizens United v. FEC case(Raftery).
Corporate personhood gives corporate interests disproportionately large amounts of influence in politics as they can contribute billions of dollars to political campaigns, and many corporations represent themselves through organizations known as super-PACs or political action committees, which spend large sums of money to promote their private interests (Marziani). During the 2012 pre-election campaigns of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, the International Business Times drew a correlation between sixty-one percent increase in negative advertisements to the exponential increase in the funding of private interest groups to political ads. Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown asserted in an interview with CBS that super-PACs, representing private interest groups such as corporations, fund ads that are mostly false and misleading (“Brown: Super PACs…”). According to a study conducted by George Mason University, voters are much more likely to feel uninformed in an atmosphere of negative, distorted advertisements. Because more American citizens feel misinformed, they tend to abstain from voting. Private interest groups are inundating news sources with false, negative advertising that only serves to lower voter turnout, and this problem is not one of small scale (Houser). As of July 2013, private interest groups such as corporations spent 820 million dollars to influence political campaigns (“Super PACs”). In summation, private corporations have a largely negative impact on the election process, thus harming democracy in the most direct way possible. Corporate presence through advertisements in the election process is clearly making money more important than people in democracy, which is a flagrant violation of basic American principles.
Apart from misinforming voters, the infiltration of private groups in American politics erodes the foundation of a representative democracy. Political action committees serve as a lobbying extension of corporations that can incentivize and threaten congressmen with their huge funding potential; consequently, congressmen tend to represent rich private groups behind closed doors rather than the people who elected them into office. The issue of corporations lobbying for their own interests can be easily illustrated in the case of tobacco companies. A study conducted by the Federal Election Committee concluded that tobacco companies have used their abundant resources to have their political interests represented despite a highly popular anti-tobacco movement in America (“Tobacco Industry Spends …”). According to a study conducted by the U.S. National Institute of Health, Republicans vote on pro-tobacco legislation 73 percent of the time, while Democrats vote pro-tobacco only 23 percent of the time. The study then reveals that Republicans in Congress vote pro-tobacco so much more than Democrats because of the amount of funding from corporations. Congressional Republicans receive a mean of $22,000 from political action committees of tobacco corporations, while Democrats only receive a mean of $6,000. The study even shows that the minority of Democrat Congressmen who do vote pro-tobacco receive much more money from tobacco companies than other Democrats that vote oppositely (Hovell). The New York Times goes even further to state that corporations can threaten to launch advertisements against politicians if they do not prioritize their narrow interests over those of the voters (“When ‘Super PACs’ …). One’s say in the government should not be decided by how much money he has. Clearly, the voice of the people is currently not being heard over the corporations because American democracy is being operated by a wealthy minority instead of the public.
Clearly, private interests are corrupting American democracy by negatively impacting voters and prioritizing their narrow desires over the broader interest of the public. According to a national poll conducted by The Washington Post, almost 70 percent of all Americans and voters alike say political action committees should be limited from unlimited expenditures for political campaigns (Cillizza). There is a substantial amount of popular support for an anti-PAC movement; now, this sentiment just needs to be harnessed appropriately to illegalize this threat to democracy. American citizens across the nation must sign online petitions to signal to their congressional representatives that corporations must not be treated as people. With widespread petitions, congressmen will be forced to use this issue as part of their political platform. Thomas Jefferson once said that “the end of democracy … will occur when government falls into the hands of moneyed corporations.” We must not allow any further deterioration of democracy to continue.
“Brown: Super PAC Ads Mostly “false and misleading”” CBS News. CBS Interactive Inc., 31 Jan. 2012. Web. 2 Jan. 2014. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/brown-super-pac-ads-mostly-false-and-misleading/>.
Cillizza, Chris, and Aaron Blake. “Poll: Voters Want Super PACs to Be Illegal.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 14 Mar. 2012. Web. 02 Nov. 2013. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/post/poll-voters-want-super-pacs-to-be-illegal/2012/03/12/gIQA6skT8R_blog.html>.
Houser, Daniel, Sandra Ludwig, and Thomas Stratmann. Does Deceptive Advertising Reduce Political Participation? Theory and Evidence. Working paper. George Mason University, 2009. Web. 2 Nov. 2013. <http://eagle.gmu.edu/ices/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Houser-Ludwig-and-Stratmann-2009.pdf>.
Hovell, Melbourne F., Marilyn F. Johnson-Kozlow, and Liza S. Rovniak. “Reducing the Gap Between the Economic Costs of Tobacco and Funds for Tobacco Training in Schools of Public Health.” National Institute of Health. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept.-Oct. 2006. Web. 4 Jan. 2014.
Marziani, Mimi M. “Money in Politics After Citizens United: Troubling Trends & Possible Solutions.” The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The Brennan Center for Justice, 18 Apr. 2012. Web. 17 Jan. 2014. <http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/money-politics-after-citizens-united-troubling-trends-possible-solutions>.
Raftery, Isolde. “California Man Says He Can Drive in Carpool Lane with Corporation Papers.” NBC News. NBC News, 5 Jan. 2013. Web. 02 Nov. 2013. <http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/01/05/16372432-california-man-says-he-can-drive-in-carpool-lane-with-corporation-papers>.
“Super PACs.” Opensecrets RSS. The Center for Responsive Politics, 23 July 2013. Web. 17 Jan. 2014. <http://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/superpacs.php>.
“Tobacco Industry Spent $10.6 Million to Lobby Congress in First Half of 2003.” Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, 6 Nov. 2003. Web. 7 Jan. 2014. <http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/press_releases/post/id_0706>.
“When ‘Super PACs’ Become Lobbyists.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 26 Nov. 2012. Web. 6 Jan. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/27/opinion/when-super-pacs-become-lobbyists.html?_r=0>.