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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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Supreme Court ruling threatens democracy
Corporate spending could drown out the will of the people
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Sen. Mark Miller
Sen. Mark Miller

If you think elections are bad now, you ain't seen nothin' yet!

The recent Supreme Court decision granting corporations unrestricted rights to engage in political speech will make it increasingly difficult for flesh-and-blood voters to avoid being overwhelmed by the corporate agenda through corporate-sponsored campaign ads.

Here is what may happen as the effects of the court's decision are felt. Elected officials who defend the public interest will be weeded out. New candidates who support the public interest will not get elected. Incumbents who defend the public interest but are so popular with voters that they can survive an election in spite of corporate spending will be marginalized.

Ordinary Americans will be able to vote, but they will not be represented. Bloodless corporations will not be able to vote, but they will most certainly be represented, at all levels of government.

Large corporations or business associations will be able to threaten an elected official: "If you don't do what we want, we will spend millions of dollars to defeat you in the next election. However, if you do what we want, we will spend money to get you reelected."

Special privileges granted to corporations allow them to garner extraordinarily large sums of money. No other private institution has comparable resources. Modern elections are largely determined by the amount of money spent on telecommunications, mostly television.

Television advertising is extremely expensive, but it is an expense large corporations routinely pay. The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling opens the floodgates for corporate political spending. It also allows other groups such as labor unions to use their treasuries for direct campaign ads, but these lack the financial resources available to corporations.

The United States has already been traveling down this path during the past 20 years. Consider the consequences of having a Bush administration and Republican Congress that were unabashedly pro-corporation and demonstrated little regard for the health, safety and welfare of average Americans.

Wall Street, pharmaceutical companies, insurance conglomerates and other mega-corporate players actually drafted legislation for Congress to pass. And this led directly to the Great Recession of 2008.

Let's not revert to the same mistaken policies even as the recession continues to have disastrous consequences for American workers and small businesses.

Corporations are essential institutions for our modern economy, but we should remember that they are created by the people through state charters. Corporations must be answerable to the people and serve the people, not the other way around.

One thing we can do is be aware that the balance in political speech has changed dramatically in favor of big money. Candidates with a history of defending the public interest, like Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, will likely see heavy spending by corporate interests to defeat them in November.

As voters, we need to be very critical of campaign ads run by third parties. This has always been true, but it will be particularly true now that corporations (and others) can spend directly on campaign ads, yet can hide their identities to avoid consumer blowback.

Second, we need to insist that all entities that run ads designed to influence the outcome of an election must disclose their contributors and their spending the same as is currently required of candidates, political parties, PACs and political conduits.

Third, we should be very angry and vocal that the Supreme Court has ignored over 100 years of legal precedent and decades of legislation designed to keep people paramount when making political decisions. Outrage is in order.

The recent Supreme Court decision may have put the final nail in a coffin that entombs the "We the People" democracy envisioned by our nation's founders. It will take concerted action to keep "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" alive.

Mark Miller (D-Monona) represents parts of Dane, Columbia and Sauk counties in the Wisconsin state Senate.

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