The profit of Citizens United: How a perverted decision by the Supreme Court legalized political bribery
Why don’t we have gun control? It is because our Supreme Court, or, more correctly, five Republicans on our Supreme Court, legalized bribery.
Not the bribery of store clerks or bank tellers or people who work for airlines. You go to jail for that.
Not the bribery of judges or police or people who work in government offices. That’s still very much a crime.
Not even international bribery; if your company does business overseas and you execute a bribe to conduct that business, you can still go to prison here in the United States.
The Supreme Court legalized bribery for only one very narrow and very specific group of people in the United States: politicians.
There’s a reason we have laws against bribery.
Bribery short-circuits normal, expected interactions and damages economic systems, typically through theft. Most important, it reduces trust. It hurts business, it hurts society, and it hurts us individually.
For example, if someone were to walk up to a salesperson in a store and offer them money to look the other way while something is stolen from that store, nobody can build a case that’s a good thing for society or something we should want to happen. Everybody acknowledges that such an attempt at bribery is wrong and hurts society.
Similarly, nobody disputes that paying bribes to cops destroys the fabric of local society. This isn’t a radical or controversial concept.
We don’t want drug companies paying off doctors to push pills at us. We saw the result of that with the Sackler family pushing oxycodone and it was a disaster that led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. It cost our nation hundreds of billions of dollars in direct and lost opportunity costs.
We don’t want rich people to be able to pay off judges so that they can avoid prosecution for their crimes. Be it Jeffrey Epstein, Bernie Madoff, or even a modern day John Dillinger, we don’t think they should be able to bribe a judge or a jury member so that they don’t have to pay for their crimes. We understand how destructive bribery is to a society.
Which is why we should be shocked, horrified, and outraged as we realize that five Republicans on the US Supreme Court legalized the exclusive and specific bribery of politicians.
We have near complete paralysis in our political system now on most issues of social consequence. This paralysis defies public opinion but conforms perfectly to the opinions of the rightwing billionaires who bribe many of our politicians today, particularly in the GOP.
And, because of the Supreme Court, they do it legally.
“Libertarian” billionaires argue that government shouldn’t fund education, healthcare, or the arts: those are areas, they say, where people should either inherit a fortune, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or rely on the philanthropy of the morbidly rich.
Those same billionaires bribe our politicians to reflect their values. Which is why public funding for social needs has collapsed, resulting in a half-million medical bankruptcies a year, an epidemic of homelessness, and American families burdened with almost $2 trillion in student loan debt.
Look at the situation with guns. We have politicians who’ve taken millions of dollars in legal bribes from the NRA and other gun interests, so they listen stone-faced to the testimony of families who lost their children to school shootings. As happened yesterday after the House hearing on the massacre of 19 school children and two teachers in Texas when Republicans leaving the hearing mouthed platitudes like, “Guns don’t kill people, criminals kill people,” and “It’s only a mental health problem.”
Now that they’ve taken those bribes for as long as they have, these Republicans pretty much have no choice but to continue to do so if they want to keep their political careers intact. They know that the same industry that bribed them in the first place can turn the tables and use that money to crush them if they turn their backs on it.
The bribery they first accepted leaves them in a position now where they’re vulnerable to a political form of extortion or blackmail. “We made you: we will spend a fortune to trash-talk you come your next election,” the bribers say. “We can and will destroy you if you cross us.“
Our planet is on fire and it’s costing America a fortune: thousands of lives lost, hundreds of thousands of lives disrupted and families torn apart, and tens of billions of dollars every year in insurance claims and lost property values from the consequences of climate change.
Just a short walk down the distance of time, our children and grandchildren may well inherit a hellscape.
And yet the entire Republican Party continues to deny global warming is even happening, just like they tell us that experiencing mass shootings almost every day is and should continue to be a “normal part of life.“
The only reason they’re saying this is because the fossil fuel industry has poured even more money over them then has the gun industry. They’re willing to sacrifice our children on the altar of their greed to continue receiving bribes, compounded by their fear of the bribers’ wrath if they try to escape the “golden straitjacket” of the bribes.
We have pharmaceutical companies making more profit in the United States than any other country on Earth because our politicians have passed laws to forbid Medicare from negotiating with them and refuse to regulate them in any other meaningful way. We’re the world’s suckers when it comes to drug prices, and it’s literally killing hundreds of Americans every month because people are skipping their medications or taking half-doses.
But will Republicans in Congress do anything about it? Everybody wants them to, but it won’t happen because the drug companies have bribed enough of them (and a small handful of Democrats) to prevent it from happening.
Everybody understands that when the G.I. Bill paid for returning GIs to go to college in the 1950s, America got a seven-dollar return for every one-dollar invested because those young people made so much more money with an education that they paid more in taxes over their lifetimes.
Every other developed country in the world has publicly acknowledged this simple reality, which is why they all offer free or nearly free college education. They all realize, as do thinking Americans, that funding education builds a nation’s intellectual infrastructure.
It was the intellectual infrastructure built by the G.I. Bill in the ’50s and ’60s that produced the world-changing innovations of the 1970s and 80s, bringing us microcircuitry, the Internet, and putting men on the moon.
So why does America have almost $2 trillion in student debt, dragging down the economy, preventing people from starting families, and inhibiting the ability of genuinely talented people with poor credit to go to or complete college? And why are the rules for paying back student loans so byzantine that most people can’t even legally take out a low-interest home equity loan to do that?
The answer is very simple: our politicians are being paid off, bribed, to keep things as they are.
Some of the bribes come from rightwing billionaires who believe their tax dollars should not be used to pay for “the rabble’s” education. Other bribes come from the banking industry and the growing for-profit education industry: there’s so much get-rich-quick money sloshing around in that industry that even Donald Trump opened his own scam university to try to cash in.
So how is it that if you bribe a store clerk or a bank teller you go to prison, but if you bribe a politician you get a tax break? When was bribery of politicians legalized in America?
There was a time, after all, when politicians — both Democrats and Republicans — passed laws that conformed to the desires of the majority of Americans.
From the end of the Republican Great Depression right up until the Reagan Revolution — from 1933 to 1981 — the American middle class had about a half-century of uninterrupted political and economic progress.
We passed the right to unionize, which built the American middle class, our nation’s first. We passed unemployment insurance and workplace safety rules to protect workers.
Social Security largely ended poverty among the elderly, and Medicare provided them with health security.
A top tax rate between 74% and 91% throughout that period kept wages strong for working people and prevented the corrosive wealth inequality we see today. We didn’t get our first billionaire until after the Reagan revolution.
We built colleges that were free or affordable, gleaming new nonprofit hospitals, the world’s finest system of public schools, and roads, bridges, rail, and airports from coast to coast.
We cleaned up the environment with the Environmental Protection Agency, cleaned up politics with the Federal Elections Commission, cleaned up corporate backroom deals with the Securities and Exchange Commission. We outlawed banks from gambling with our deposits via the Glass-Steagall law.
But it all came to a screeching halt with the Reagan Revolution. How and why?
Instead of building the middle class, Reaganomics gutted it. Instead of educating young people, it indebted them. Instead of supporting workers, the GOP’s “right to work” scheme took away their dignity and their pay.
Today both our nation’s infrastructure and our workforce are in shambles because of 40 years of disinvestment and neglect.
What made that possible? Why did that happen?
It all comes back to bribery.
Our modern era of legalized political bribery began in the decade after Richard Nixon put Lewis Powell — the tobacco lawyer who wrote the infamous 1971 “Powell Memo” outlining how billionaires and corporations could take over America — on the Supreme Court in 1972.
In the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, the Court ruled that political money wasn’t just cash: they claimed it’s also “free speech” protected by the First Amendment that guarantees your right to speak out on political issues.
In the 200 preceding years — all the way back to the American Revolution of 1776 — no politician or credible political scientist had ever proposed that giving money to a politician in exchange for favors or votes was anything other than simple bribery.
The “originalists” on the Supreme Court claimed to be channeling the Founders of this nation, particularly those who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, when they said that money was the same as speech. In that claim, Republicans on the Court were lying through their teeth.
In a letter to Samuel Kerchival in 1816, President and author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson explicitly laid it out:
“Those seeking profits, were they given total freedom, would not be the ones to trust to keep government pure and our rights secure. Indeed, it has always been those seeking wealth who were the source of corruption in government.”
In this, he was making the same argument that the Framers of Pennsylvania made when writing their constitution in 1776. As Kevin Phillips notes in his masterpiece book Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, a proposed Sixteenth Article of the revolutionary-era Pennsylvania Bill of Rights declared:
“An enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness of mankind, and, therefore, every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property.”
But Republicans on the Supreme Court weren’t reading the Founders. They were instead listening to the billionaires who helped get them on the court in the first place. Who had bribed them with position and power.
Two years after the 1976 Buckley decision, the Republicans on the Supreme Court struck again, this time adding that the “money is speech and can be used to buy politicians” argument applied to corporations as well as to billionaires. Lewis Powell himself wrote the majority opinion in the 1978 Boston v Bellotti decision.
Justices White, Brennan, and Marshall dissented:
“The special status of corporations has placed them in a position to control vast amounts of economic power which may, if not regulated, dominate not only our economy but the very heart of our democracy, the electoral process.”
But the dissenters lost the vote, and political corruption of everything from local elections to the Supreme Court itself was now virtually assured.
Notice that ruling came down just two years before the Reagan Revolution, when almost all forward progress in America came to a screeching halt. It’s no coincidence.
And it has gotten worse since then, with the Court doubling down in 2010 with Citizens United, overturning hundreds of state and federal “good government” laws dating all the way back to the late 1800s.
Thus, today America has a severe bribery problem.
It is bizarre that the Court would keep intact anti-bribery laws across every facet of American life except politics, but that’s exactly what they did. Bribery is illegal in business, it’s illegal in interactions with the police, but it’s perfectly legal to bribe politicians.
No other developed country in the world has this problem, which is why every other developed country has a national healthcare system, free or near-free college, and strong unions that maintain a healthy middle class.
We’re the only major country in the world right now that is experiencing legislative gridlock on this scale. And we’ve been experiencing it for four decades.
The majority of elected Democrats are committed to ending political bribery.
For example, the For The People Act that passed the House of Representatives last year, and was only blocked in the Senate by Senators Manchin and Sinema (both well bribed) along with all 50 Republican senators, explicitly outlawed most big money in politics.
Other laws and constitutional amendments to overturn the Supreme Court’s corrupt Citizens United decision and outlaw political bribery have been proposed by Democrats literally hundreds of times in the past decades. All have died at the hands of unified Republican opposition with the help of the occasional sellout Democrat.
This cannot continue. If America is to survive as a republic, we must end the legal bribery of our politicians.
© Thom Hartmann, used with permission. Originally published on The Hartmann Report as When Was Bribery of Politicians Legalized In America?
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