Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Whatever else Nero may have accomplished, and some historians will tell us it was not wholly insignificant, this is the most enduring story that has survived from the reign of Nero. The great fire that engulfed Rome broke out in mid-July AD 64. The fiddle may not even have existed in 1st century Rome; the instrument that is associated with Nero’s Rome is the lyre. But no new ‘facts’, or claims to tell us the ‘real truth’, can undo the popular understanding that Nero fiddled as good chunks of Rome were reduced to ashes.
Many years hence, it is entirely possible that people will mull over the present-day evisceration of the little that remains of American democracy while the Supreme Court went gallivanting. Among the more hallowed of democratic institutions anywhere in the world, the United States Supreme Court has on occasion furnished grounds for optimism even to the most tried cynics. Some of the court’s most memorable days may have been when it struck down Jim Crow laws, outlawed segregation, enhanced prisoners’ rights, and otherwise acted in the interest of a freer, open, and just society. Others more familiar with the history of the court will no doubt go as far back as the early days of the Republic, when the Marshall Court, in a memorable series of decisions, established the principle of judicial review (Marbury v. Madison, 1803) or, to take another notable achievement, prevented states from taxing federal institutions (McCulloch v. Maryland, 1819). For the last couple of decades, however, the Supreme Court has been singularly unimpressive, and most of the appointments of the last twenty years, from Clarence Thomas to Chief Justice Roberts, are not calculated to inspire confidence in those who would like to look to the court as the keeper of democracy.
If the court can be described as the preserver of liberties, the liberties are increasingly those of robbers and criminals often masquerading as politicians, bankers, financiers, and CEOs. With its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission to remove corporate campaign limits, and allow corporate America a free hand to influence the course of politics, the Supreme Court has sounded the death knell of democracy. Some will proclaim this an exaggeration, and point to the alleged self-correcting tendencies of American society; others will submit that the US remains the most successful example of the capitalist model, which might even be rejected were it not for the circumstance that it is better than all other available and tested models of political society. Since, apparently, corporations have not been permitted a free run for their money, and they have much the same rights that are permitted to individuals – in the bizarre language of the majority, “Government may not suppress political speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity” – the court in its wisdom has proclaimed that the protocols which permit the oppression of corporations must be brought to an end!
Most likely more than anywhere else in the world, candidates for high office in the United States have generally come from exceedingly affluent backgrounds. The Supreme Court is packed with millionaires, and Roberts came to office as Chief Justice with an estimated wealth of $6 million. While the liberals scanned his records to assess how he might vote on the question of abortion, his corporatist leanings were given scant attention. The US Senate is often characterized as the most exclusive club in the world, and not only merely because its 100 members wield extraordinary power; indeed, a substantial majority of its members are millionaires, some obscenely so, and its four wealthiest members are all Democrats. A campaign for a Senate seat can run in excess of $75 million; the cost of the last presidential election was in excess of $1 billion. The lesson in this is clear enough: only the heavily propertied classes should aspire for high political office, and they should understand that sanctioning the theft of the nation’s resources is among their principal obligations as office-holders.
In the eighteenth century, in which I live for some part of my life as a teacher of the history of British India, Englishmen returned home with some of the plunder from Bengal; they attempted to buy seats, much to the acute discomfort of those with landed wealth. Now electoral triumphs are hard-fought gains – but such triumphs appear very much like the attempts to buy seats in the 18th century, even if our language has very much changed. Lincoln went from a log cabin to the White House, and the rags to riches narrative can always be summoned to illustrate the infinite possibilities in the land of promise. Yet, the inescapable reality is that money determines to an overwhelming degree the outcome of elections, and the Supreme Court decision has laid bare the uncomfortable fact, transparent at least to a few of its critics, that the US has long been a plutocracy.
Justice Stevens, in his dissenting opinion, rightly describes the Court’s understanding of the corporation as akin to an individual, as the bearer of the rights of free speech that are granted in the First Amendment, as both a repudiation of common sense and a mockery of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. “While American democracy is imperfect,” writes Stevens, “few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” In 2009 the US Chamber of Commerce spent $144 million in attempts to influence the US Congress and state legislatures, and financial companies spent close to $5 billion over a decade pursuing deregulation and other policy outcomes that would lead to the economic collapse of 2008. The entire economic recovery appears to have been undertaken through the eyes of the bankers, whose ineptitude and greed continue to be rewarded. The time is not so distant when Supreme Court justices, much like the occupants of some chaired professorships, will be known by the name of the corporation that has agreed to patronize them. We are only left to imagine what kind of future is in store for the US with Exxon Chief Justice Roberts, Mobil Justice Scalia, Chevron Justice Thomas, and others of their ilk at the helm to guide the ship of justice to its shores.