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Is Our Democracy Becoming a Joke?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce held a dramatic press conference in October. The group promised to stop lobbying against pending climate legislation, and pledged to help make it even stronger. A few minutes later, the jig was up when an authentic Chamber representative barged in, sputtering, aghast.

The Yes Men had struck again. A lawsuit ensued, with the Chamber accusing the humorous anti-corporate activists of trademark infringement, unfair competition, and false advertising.

Established a century ago, the Chamber was originally intended to help state and local business leaders advise lawmakers on how best to meet American business needs. Together with its national subsidiaries, the Chamber spent $144.5 million last year on lobbying, grassroots efforts, and advertising—often aimed at defeating health care, climate change, and financial reform legislation.

America’s most profitable corporations tend to be oil companies. Even after a steep decline in profits from the year before, Exxon Mobil earned profits totaling nearly $20 billion in 2009. Not coincidentally, the Chamber has increasingly urged skepticism on action on climate change. The Chamber’s leaders have gone so far as to equate climate legislation with “suicide bombing the American economy for the promise of green jobs in heaven.”

A handful of major companies, including Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. and Apple Inc., have left the Chamber to protest its climate change positions. The Yes Men’s stunt drew attention to the outrageous propositions the Chamber of Commerce was putting forward while bankrolling a campaign so out of step with climate science.

Many newspapers around the country are slashing reporters' budgets and growing ever more reliant on powerful interests, including oil companies. As a result, the chances a local paper will track the insidiousness of the fossil fuel industry and its handmaidens at the Chamber of Commerce are pretty remote.

Opinion polls suggest the public has been lulled back to sleep on the issue of climate change, putting it last on our list of priorities. As a result, we may see little or no U.S. action on climate change any time soon. And a recent Supreme Court decision has made that slim chance slimmer.

With a 5–4 vote, the Court ruled last month in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission that corporations like Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and others can now spend as much money as they wish promoting political candidates.

This virtually ensures that politicians will be increasingly beholden to oil interests. We’ll soon have in place a situation where “Citizen” Exxon will be lobbying “Politician” Chevron, with no evidence of their corporate sponsorship.

So, where do we go from here? The Yes Men have tried to wake us up to this crisis of democracy—one that affects the planet’s fate. But things seem to have only gotten worse since they pulled this stunt.

Here are three suggestions on how we can disentangle the fossil-fuel lobby from our democracy:

First we’ve got to revisit what it means to be a nonprofit, and ensure that nonprofits are in fact serving public interests, not corporate interests. All nonprofits should be required to disclose their corporate sponsors. If they're primarily serving those private interests, they should lose their nonprofit status.

For example, why is it that newspapers, which provide a vital public service—informing the public on issues vital to our democracy—must appeal to the corporations to survive, but a massively profitable corporation can secretly bankroll a non-profit, like the Chamber of Commerce, and take tax write-offs for activity that’s clearly in the private interest?

Second, we must amend our Constitution to make it clear, once and for all, that corporations aren’t people and don’t have the same rights as people in upholding our democracy.

And third, we must ensure all elected offices are supported with free coverage by nonprofit media in their race for office or by free advertising in for-profit media.

The Yes Men tried to wake us up with humor. But the fate of our democracy and our planet is anything but a joke.

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