Democracy is defined as rule by the people. But especially since the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, it seems to mean rule by the people with money.
That disastrous decision ruled that corporations and unions enjoy the same free speech rights that individual human persons have, and can therefore spend freely on direct political advocacy. While many took issue with the concept of corporations as people, Catholics acknowledge that the concept of corporate personhood, as in members of the church joined in the body of Christ, is a dominant theme throughout the Bible. Christ is able to undo Adam’s sin because Christ, like Adam, incorporates the whole human race (Rom 5:12–21). In a modern situation, where individualism takes hold and associations of civil society wither away, it is important that groups speak with united voices.
But not all corporate bodies are the same, and whom they speak for varies greatly. The Citizens United ruling is based on the idea that more speech is better and that spending money is necessary for disseminating speech. Unfortunately, that ruling upholds the freedom of all to speak while deliberately ignoring the real disparities of power among different speakers.
There is such a thing as too much speech. For speech to be effective, it has to be heard. It is not enough to have the right to stand on a street corner and speak if your opponent can drown out your voice with sophisticated means of communication. If money allows certain voices to dominate the “marketplace of ideas,” then there is no free market; it is instead a monopoly. Too much speech from one point of view can and does drown out and negate free speech from those who lack the money to spread their views.
In theory, all kinds of individuals and groups—wealthy individuals, poor individuals, business corporations, unions—have the same rights to free speech. In reality, the voices of the wealthy drown out the voices of the poor, and the voices of business corporations dwarf those of labor unions.
In addition to having access to more money, business corporations are also fundamentally different types of corporate persons than unions and other associations. A union is a group of workers united by common interest; a business corporation is a group of stockholders, managers and workers whose interests may be diametrically opposed to each other. Speech from a business corporation often uses the resources generated in part by the workers to oppose the workers’ interests, because the managers and stockholders—and not the workers—decide what political speech to support.
From a Christian point of view, the fact that the voice of the wealthy is the voice that is most clearly and forcefully heard is an upside-down state of affairs. For it is precisely the voice of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable that ought to be heard most clearly.
As the Gospel makes plain, Christians must aim not only to be charitable to the poor and vulnerable but to associate with them, to live with them and listen to them, just as God hears their cries. To defend the cause of the poor, one must know their concerns; and for their concerns to be known, their voices must be heard. And precisely because we are part of one another, a true corporate person with common goods, the interests of the poor are not just those of one special interest group contending against others; rather, all of us are bound up together with the fate of the poor and most vulnerable.
The Supreme Court is about to rule on another case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which will likely allow the wealthiest among us to use their money to amplify their voices even more. The Catholic bishops of the United States have emphasized that the poor are not simply a nagging burden; they deserve participation in political life. The current equation of political speech with money virtually ensures that this principle will be violated and that the interests of those with access to money will prevail in the “marketplace of ideas.”
It is time for people of faith to engage with this crucial issue and use our corporate body, coming together as a community, to speak against this silencing of the poor, and against the monopoly of speech enjoyed by the very wealthiest in our society. Only then will democracy be something more than an empty promise.