Out stumping on the campaign trail this week, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney committed the following “gaffe” when confronted by some liberal hecklers:
“Corporations are people, my friend. . . . Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.”
Like the spectacle of a moderately liberal New England governor campaigning as a true, red-blooded social conservative, Romney’s remark is ludicrous and liberal pundits have rightly had a field day with it. Corporations, of course, most certainly are not people; they can’t be imprisoned, for one. So yes, let’s all enjoy a good chuckle at ol’ Mitt’s expense and hope he provides many more belly laughs in the coming months — I have my fingers crossed for more impromptu mingling with minorities.
But here’s the thing, and the reason I have “gaffe” in scare quotes: Does any national politician — does any leading Democrat — actually disagree with what Romney said? Not the rhetoric, which I think most would be wise enough to avoid, but the substance of what he was defending: corporate personhood.
Some would no doubt point to President Obama’s denunciation at last year’s State of the Union Address of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which held that corporations enjoy the same free speech rights as any other person. However, that response is something of a non-sequitur, as Obama’s criticism was not of the root problem behind the decision about which I asked, corporate personhood, but of a narrow ruling that merely extended said legal status. And on strictly legal grounds — which, full disclosure, I don’t much care about — it’s hard to disagree with the court’s ruling, which is merely the bizarre consequence of the even more bizarre and longstanding practice of the state bestowing the legal status of a person on an inanimate financial venture.
This isn’t nitpicking. Conflating criticism of the Citizens United ruling with criticism of corporate personhood itself is like conflating criticism of a politician with sedition and treason. I mean, what’s the fear, exactly: that, thanks to the Supreme Court, corporations are now going to corrupt Our Democracy by buying and selling politicians? I’ll admit such an outcome is scary, but if we’re going to be in the business of constructing doomsday scenarios, we ought to be sure they differ from the status quo.
The truth is, Romney’s “gaffe” is much like Sarah Palin’s remark in 2008 that, why yes, the U.S. would be legally obliged to attack Russia if it went to war with a member of NATO. Back then, every pundit and politician with a blog or a microphone went to town ridiculing Palin’s ill-considered and risible remark, arguing it proved her unfitness for office, all the while obscuring a key fact: that what she said was indisputably true. Then as now, the real controversy ought not to have been the clumsy way something was stated, but the truth of what was said.
Criticize Romney and the Supreme Court all you want, the more troubling issue is that, legally speaking, corporations are people — and that no one in establishment political circles sees a problem with that. This bipartisan embrace of the corporate state consequently causes problems for the 99.9 percent of us not likely to sit on any corporate boards for, while real-live people do indeed reap the benefit of corporate profits, corporate personhood and its attendant “limited liability” ensure they face almost none of the consequences of their bad, and often criminal, decisions.
For instance, while mere mortal, flesh-and-blood people would face serious prison time for paying right-wing death squads to execute labor activists, corporate executives who personally approved those very payments were able to conceal their identities and get away with a mere fine from the Justice Department, the cost of which was no doubt passed along to costumers and shareholders as a whole, rather than the actual perpetrators. Legally, the executives weren’t responsible, some prick named “Chiquita” was.
Because blame for wrongdoing can be passed off on to another person — another person who, again, can’t go to jail — corporate executives can get away with reckless behavior as a matter of course. The profit when such recklessness pays off is huge and, of course, theirs to keep. When it doesn’t, as in the case of Goldman Sachs and the housing bubble and with BP and its destruction of the Gulf, the worst that happens is someone like Tony Hayward has to delay remodeling the kitchen in their 14th house by a few weeks while, in true American socialistic fashion, the rest of us chip in to pay for their mistakes. And every politician from Mitt Romney to Nancy Pelosi is fine with that, even if they disagree on how best to rationalize it to an angry public.
If you’re laughing at Mitt Romney because, well, he’s Mitt Romney: Fine. By all means. But if you’re laughing at his remark under the impression his stance on corporations is fundamentally at odds with, say, Barack Obama, the laugh’s on you.