Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Promoting The Commercial Good

Articulating a need for a separation of church and state was enough to get Thomas Jefferson cut out of history textbooks by the Texas Board of Education earlier this year.

Imagine how many calls to ban Jefferson there would be if more people were aware that Jefferson less famously emphasized a similar need for a distinction between commerce and democracy, a separation of corporation and state if you will.

Jefferson wrote, "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

Jefferson was deeply wary of corporate power and believed if the people were to govern themselves corporations needed to be kept on a short leash politically. And he wasn't alone. For the better part of the new nation's first century, corporations operated under revocable charters confining them to strictly commercial activities and requiring them to serve the public interest.

With the Tea Party movement all the rage in our current moment, people forget that the original Boston Tea Party was not only a protest of British rule but also specifically an act of civil disobedience against the British East India Trading Company. Those tea partiers understood how unrestrained corporate power went hand in hand with political oppression.

My, how that understanding has waned. Target Corporation is now in the news for its decision to pump $150,000 into the race for governor in Minnesota, one of the early manifestations of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in January that corporations can spend as much as they like to influence elections.

By backing a candidate who strongly opposes gay rights, Target now finds itself scrambling to reassure gay customers and employees there is no bigotry behind the company's political activities. In trying to smooth things over, Target's top management is revealing something other corporate execs have been loathe to publicly acknowledge, namely that they sink money into elections strictly to enhance their bottom line. Or as Target's CEO said in a letter to employees, "to advance policies aligned with our business objectives."

To hell with civil rights. To hell with social justice. To hell with what's best for the whole country. To hell with any concern for the common good. Governing this nation is about nothing more than a single-minded pursuit of "business objectives."

This is what will be reaped from what the Supreme Court sowed with its decision in the Citizens United case.

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