Corporations Versus Democracy

The most important issue to young people in the 2008 campaign is one that no presidential candidate will discuss. In fact, even touching on this subject is taboo for anyone with aspirations to Congress or the White House. Anyone who has the temerity to mention this political third rail will almost certainly lose the campaign.

The issue is the curtailing of corporate power, and as long as corporations continue to finance major candidates, it will remain unspoken. No one running for office wants to be blacklisted by corporate lobbyists in Washington.

That's a shame, because this issue is connected to almost every other problem facing America today. As long as corporations have no incentive to avoid polluting, we will continue to poison this planet at an alarming rate, and as long as corporate lobbyists hold an inordinate amount of influence in Washington, there will be no substantive solutions to problems like income inequality or our woefully inadequate healthcare system.

The unchecked power of American corporations does not just affect America, either. It is our corporations that are exploiting developing nations by employing their people at low wages in inhuman working conditions. The environment, obviously, is a global issue. And while some may scoff at the idea of the United States waging war for economic reasons, it is difficult to ignore the mounting evidence that we invaded Iraq, at least in part, to bring profit to American oil companies and defense contractors. What country is next? Iran?

If presidential candidates were willing to treat unchecked corporate power as an actual problem, we might be able to begin considering solutions. At a start, the regulations already in place to curtail corporate power could be enforced again.

More drastic measures need to be taken as well. I would start by changing the legal definition of a corporation. Currently, a corporation is legally defined as a human being, and therefore it possesses all the liberties that go along with being a member of the human race.

That definition is clearly absurd--a corporation is little more than a profit-making machine formed by a loose collective of human beings. It is not entitled to protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, or any other amendment of the Constitution for that matter.

Public financing of campaigns is also a central part of reducing corporate power in America. While public financing's detractors argue that it is fundamentally undemocratic, it will in fact bring America closer to the democratic ideal we purport to hold so dear.

There is much about the current campaign model that is fundamentally undemocratic, but nowhere is that more true than in the field of campaign finance. It is virtually impossible to run for Congress or the White House without becoming a corporate-sponsored candidate, and corporate-sponsored candidates act more on behalf of the corporations that pay to put them in office than the actual human beings that vote for them.

Public campaign finance will fix this by leveling the playing field and ensuring that candidates are selected based on their ability to present their case, not how much money they can raise from GE or Bechtel.

Additional regulation on corporations is also a must. While this includes environmental statutes, something that nobody seems to be discussing is how to regulate corporate America's human rights abuses abroad. In other words, if Nike is abusing workers in Indonesia, what can we in the United States do to make sure that ceases?

One possible solution is economic sanctions against our own corporations. America is a massive market, and many of the worst violators of human rights are based here, although their factories may be abroad. Why not close off the American market to these companies unless they adhere to some sort of international human rights standard?

One could argue that we have a moral obligation to do something like this, but it is not entirely without its own material rewards. This is a national security issue--to many developing nations, these corporations are the face of the United States, and the more people they abuse around the world, the worse the international perception of us becomes and the more potential terrorists and anti-American sentiment we breed.

In a campaign that is more about fundraising than real issues, unchecked corporate power is the elephant in the room. We cannot rely on the candidates to raise the issue--rather, we must raise awareness among Americans in the hopes that they will force the candidates to acknowledge this central problem in our democracy.

Ned Resnikoff is a freshman at New York University. He wrote this essay while a senior at Middletown High School in Middletown, Connecticut. Resnikoff is one of five finalists in The Nation's 2007 Student Writing Contest. Read more about the competition on

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