A little over four months has passed since protesters began gathering in Zuccotti Park, New York in a movement now known globally as Occupy Wall Street (OWS). What began as just a few hundred people gathered in a park in lower Manhattan protesting against political disenfranchisement and social and economic inequality has spread to over a hundred cities across the United States and to over a thousand cities worldwide. Opponents say this is a group of left-wing liberal extremists seeking to divide the United States through class warfare. Advocates say they are expressing their rights to free assembly and free speech against institutions they feel are corrupt and have failed them. Despite having no clear leadership and lacking a clearly articulated agenda, this amorphous group is gaining support and changing the tone of political discourse in America. One of the issues OWS has been most vocal about is the corruption they see in America’s political system and how it is responsible for the growing wealth disparity in the United States.
The core of OWS is called the New York City General Assembly, which OWS describes itself as “open, participatory and horizontally organized.” This horizontal democracy lies in stark contrast to the hierarchies that are inherent within America’s corporate and political power structures. While having no official leaders, OWS is in fact highly organized. They have raised over $700,000 dollars in donations and have over 70 working groups. Each working group focuses on a different demand, ranging from determining how federal and state constitutions can be used to change the existing governmental structures, to finding viable solutions to the American healthcare crisis. However, there is a unifying message and a unifying goal. Corporatocracy is the term OWS protesters have adopted to describe the disproportionate influence corporations have over the American political system.
Corporate personhood is “the status conferred upon corporations under the law, which allows corporations to have rights and responsibilities similar to the natural person“. Therefore, corporations in the U.S. can employ their right to free speech under the First Amendment, which allows limitless individual contributions to political campaigns. This allows financial institutions to pour an exorbitant amount of money into the political campaigns of their chosen politicians. The financial sector has in recent years drowned political candidates in campaign contributions, spending more than $1.738 billion in federal elections from 1998-2008. But why do corporations fund these politicians? Because by controlling the lawmakers, corporations control the passage of laws that affect them.
The landmark decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission compounded the problem of money’s influence over politics when in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits the federal government from placing limits on independent spending for political purposes by corporations and unions. Not all U.S. Supreme Court Justices agreed with the ruling—a few realized the implications it would have for the electoral process. Justice John P. Stevens along with Justice Ruth Ginsburg, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a dissenting opinion. This minority argued that the Court’s ruling “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation.” Justice Stevens concluded his dissent:
“At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
These Justices were not the only ones who disagreed with the decision. The dissent crossed party lines when former Republican presidential nominee John McCain on CBS’ political news program, “Face the Nation,” predicted a backlash over time from voters once they see the amount of money that corporations and unions would contribute to political campaigns.
Outside spending for political campaigns increased by 427% from the 2006 election cycle to the post-Citizens decision in 2010.
By controlling America’s politicians, Wall Street is able to effectively block legislative reform that would impact corporations and block proposed tax increases for the richest 1% of the nation. That is why OWS protesters are calling for an end to corporate personhood as well as measures to reduce the impact of Citizens United. This would, they argue, eliminate politicians’ accountability to corporations and reduce corruption in the United States political system. While the tactics of the Occupiers may be unpalatable for many Americans, they have tapped into mainstream sentiments that until now have had no voice or platform for expression. OWS is giving voice to the frustrations that many Americans, both Republican and Democrat, feel about their political system and Wall Street’s pervasive influence on politics.