By Randy Hayes and Shannon Biggs
What do you love about the U.S. Constitution?
As we grimly mark the 3rd anniversary of the infamous Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) Citizens United ruling that opened the corporate-funded floodgates, empowering Billionaires to speak loudest in our elections, it is an important if not overlooked question.
For the rest of us who can’t afford our own SuperPAC, ‘corporate personhood’ has become shorthand for all that ails our flagging democracy. Amending the Constitution to abolish it and/or repeal Citizens United is certainly a movement gaining steam, and it has created space for casting a critical eye on the structural defects of our system. But if the bull’s eye is fixing government in the hands of the people, then it is time to ask: If the Supreme Court had never granted “personhood” privilege to corporations, would rights of people, communities and nature be protected? Would we have democracy? Would this one fix affect the wide scale change we seek?
Truth is, there is far more standing in the way of building sustainable, democratic and just communities than corporate personhood. To dismantle corporate rule we have to look at ALL the tools that the U.S. Constitution provides to the powerful few corporate rulers, enabling them to override the needs of local and state majorities and the natural systems upon which we depend. Maybe it’s time to do what Thomas Jefferson advised every generation to do and rewrite the Constitution itself.
While criticizing corporate personhood has reached the mainstream, questioning the Constitution is not just a conversation killer—its the ultimate taboo topic from the lunatic fringe. With so much at stake, it’s time to take open stock of this powerful document and contemplate: What do we really love about it, or find convoluted or missing?
What the Constitution AIN’T
Here we sit 225 years into the current Constitution—and from the onset of climate disruption to drone warfare to the Internet, the world has changed in ways that would boggle a Founding Father’s mind. Yet questioning the legend or wisdom of the framers can still be as electrifying as touching the third rail on the subway.
Chances are you, like most folks, “love” either the Preamble or the Bill of Rights … neither of which are actually part of the current Constitution, and neither of which affect the way decisions are made or who makes them. The “We The People,” Preamble encapsulates the dream of the Constitution for many, but has been deemed mere poetry by the Supreme Court, cannot be used to make law, and bears little resemblance to the text that follows. The Bill of Rights is what most believe is the heart of the Constitution, but it was drafted as a tack-on concession to appease the masses who feared the new Constitution was a “conspiracy of the Well Born few against the sacred rights of their fellow citizens.” The Bill of Rights was left up to the unelected Supreme Court to interpret. Rather than using this unrivaled (and generally unquestioned) power to uphold rights for the many, their decisions read like the wish list of the few: from ‘Separate but Equal’ to denying labor and environmental rights to creating corporate personhood.
Now consider that the Constitution doesn’t make it illegal to kill the planet. Nature’s needs are not addressed in the document. In fact, it encourages and legalizes destruction every day by treating nature or natural systems as owned property with a price. That’s a problem when you realize that nature nourishes all things, including us. As far as business goes, remember that 100 percent of the economy depends on the functions of nature just doing their thing. But the life support systems of this country, continent and planet are not mere things for the property and commerce titans to profiteer, plunder and trash. Consider natural entities such as a river and all the life it sustains have legal rights to exist and flourish. Now take the idea of human rights and apply them to ecosystems. Legal rights of nature wouldn’t stop development—just the kinds of development that interfere with the existence and vitality of natural systems.
If our own human rights come by virtue of being born, then they surely emanate from the natural world. And yet we treat the natural word as if our own rights don’t depend on the health of our planet. It’s like trying to take care of a single leaf on a tree that is dying all around us. We cannot protect nature as long as we treat it as a belonging, rather than seeing ourselves as part of the natural world. New protections would be possible if nature’s rights were recognized in our Constitution. We would not be the first to do so; the Ecuadorian people ratified a new system of environmental protection based on legal rights when they rewrote their Constitution (lots of countries do this). Bolivia, New Zealand and some U.S. communities have paved the way for us. We can enshrine this as well at the local, state and national levels.
When is the Constitution like a Hydra?