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Alone With J

May 21, 2012

By J SWYGART
    I’m a big fan of movies. Not new movies; I haven’t been to a theater in a decade — in part because I’m too cheap to shell out $10 for what will probably be a lousy flick anyway.
    But give me an old movie any day, any time, and I’ll be a happy camper. I’ll gladly watch Casablanca or Cool Hand Luke for the umpteenth time. Same goes for anything Bogey and Bacall (To Have and Have Not and Key Largo are particular favorites). Or almost anything Alfred Hitchcock ever directed.
    The other night it was Taxi Driver that was on the tube. I’ve watched countless times as mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran Travis Bickle (Robert DiNiro) attempts to “save” 12-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodi Foster) from her pimp. But, as is usually the case when films are viewed repeatedly, there are often subtle nuances — dictated more than any other thing by the current events of the day — that will sometimes stand out, even when overlooked previously.
   That was precisely the case during my recent viewing of Taxi Driver. In one scene, a senator and presidential candidate crawls into the back seat of Bickle’s cab. They strike up a conversation as the politicians tries to get a handle on the thought process of the “common man.” The senator poses a question to his New York newfound cabbie friend: “If there was one thing you’d like to see politicians fix in this country, what would it be?”     
    DiNiro’s character rambles on about cleaning up the streets of New York and ridding the landscape of drugs and undesirable elements.
    But it got me thinking: What if that question was posed to me, by a person in a position to actually do something about it? What would be my answer?
    Repeal the Patriot Act? Enact tougher gun laws? Stop building Bridges to Nowhere?
    I thought and I thought, and here’s what I came up with. Given one wish by a magic political genie, I would ask for a complete overhaul of campaign finance laws in this country.
    As recently as just three years ago, that suggestion probably would not have found its way to the top of my personal wish list. But in the wake of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which gave corporations and unions the same political campaign contribution rights as individuals, it already is clear that abuses are running rampant. The recent Richard Mourdock-Richard Lugar Senate race in Indiana saw millions of out-of-state dollars pumped in to a bitter and negative campaign, and the source of that money will never be known in its entirety.
    The high court in its Citizens United ruling found “no compelling government interest for prohibiting corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make election-related independent expenditures” and subsequently struck down a federal law banning the practice.
    In his dissenting opinion, Court Justice John P. Stevens argued the majority did not place enough emphasis on the need to prevent the “appearance of corruption” in elections. Stevens predicted that if the public believes that corporations dominate elections, disaffected voters will stop participating.
    He also discussed how the unique qualities of corporations and other artificial legal entities made them dangerous to democratic elections. These legal entities, he argued, have perpetual life, the ability to amass large sums of money, limited liability, no ability to vote, no morality, no purpose outside of profit-making, and no loyalty. Therefore, he argued, the courts should permit legislatures to regulate corporate participation in the political process.
    A wise man, that Justice Stevens. He knew — as did everyone else involved in that court ruling — that special interest groups already were too powerful in influencing the outcome of political campaigns, and that the Citizens United ruling would only exaggerate the gap between the political haves and the have-nots.
    “Corporations are people, too,” argues Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
    Well, no ... they’re not. But as long as mega-corporations — and, yes, labor unions, too — are free to use their holdings for political influence, they will continue to have a gigantic leg up on “people” like you and I.
    One person, one vote. It has a nice ring to it, as pillars of democracy go. But the highest court in the land has sullied that notion, and until it reverses course true democratic elections will continue to be a thing of the past.

    The writer is the opinion page editor of the Decatur Daily Democrat.
    
 

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