Dear Little Guy,

Once again, we, the little guys, have been told that our power to affect change is only as large as our wallets.

After we overwhelmingly elected a candidate on a platform of change and watched his efforts at reform be strangled by corporate lobbyists and right-wing ideologues, exercising our right to have our voices heard has become more difficult still.

After we watched Wall Street reward itself with billions of dollars in bonuses as a prize for plundering the livelihoods of average Americans and sending our economy into its deepest downturn of our generation, the good of the people has yet again taken a backseat to the good of Big Business, Big Labor and anything else big enough to outshout and outspend the little guy.

After nearly three decades of rising inequality and marginalization of anyone not lucky enough to be among the richest one percent, the voice of the little guy will be diluted even further thanks to the will of five individuals.

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down decades of judicial precedent when it ruled on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court held that corporations have an essentially limitless right to run advertisements for political campaigns. The majority found justification for its decision in the First Amendment, claiming that a corporation has the same right as any of us to freedom of speech and expression.

I would love for someone out there to tell us how — after this deplorable decision — they can denounce with a straight face “liberal” judges for their “judicial activism,” “legislating from the bench” and all the other cute little phrases conservatives have invented for not getting their way. The Supreme Court has made a 180-degree turnaround and decided that a wealth of rulings dating back before any of us were born were errors. This radical departure from past rulings on campaign finance — some as recent as 2003 — is the epitome of judicial activism and was driven by the conservative wing of the Court. As Justice John Paul Stevens stated in his spirited dissent, “The only relevant thing that has changed … is the composition of this court.”

The threat of corporate power to the integrity of a democracy has been a concern since this nation’s founding. In 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” While the structure, activities and nature of businesses have obviously evolved since that time, the message behind Jefferson’s statement remains unchanged and eternally relevant.

Corporations (and large powerful groups in general), if allowed, have the ability to wield an unequal amount of influence in the political process. Politicians hear those voices far more directly than our own via the process of lobbying. This is the process by which corporations and other large special interest groups send representatives to pressure members of Congress to enact policies that further their goals and/or boost their profits.

But there is no lobbyist for “We the People.”

Consider the fact that, according to a December poll by the National Wildlife Federation, 82 percent of voters wants more government investment in clean energy sources and 67 percent supports the government limiting carbon emissions. That’s an enormous majority of us that favors these policies, yet our will has not become law. The cap-and-trade legislation passed by the House of Representatives to address this issue — which it has already watered down to a barely tolerable level of efficacy — has sat dead in the Senate.

The reason is simple: money. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2009, the oil and gas industry spent $120,729,855 in lobbying to make sure its voice drowned out ours. And politicians know how valuable this sector can be in a campaign — in 2008 the oil and gas industry made campaign contributions totaling $35,589,287. No wonder Republicans are fighting so hard against a cause so many of us favor — 77 percent of that money went to their party’s candidates.

And this was all before the Supreme Court gave corporations an even larger and more entrenched role in the political process. The disappointing reality is that all voices are not equal when money plays such a large role in our politics. But even if you find my outrage too strong or my rhetoric too harsh, I have a voice, and despite this gross blow to democracy, I will make it heard. Will you?

Alex Schiff can be reached at aschiff@umich.edu.

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