Corporate personhood & the collapsing moral-political conversation in America
David R. Weiss, February 26, 2013
Too much on my plate to develop these thoughts any further right now, but they seem worth sharing …
In a recent piece posted on AlterNet George Lakoff (cognitive linguist and author of many books, including Don’t Think of an Elephant) explores how ultra-conservatives and progressives (his terms) differ in their attitudes toward the looming sequester.
In short, ultra-conservatives see personal responsibility and maximal individual liberty as the primary moral values worthy to guide our political life. From this perspective, if the sequester hits social programs—and hits them hard—that’s actually a moral good. It increases justice because it moves us toward a society in which everyone is on their own.
On the other hand, progressives see the provision of mutual care, especially for those most vulnerable as the primary moral value worthy to guide our political life. From this perspective, if the sequester hits social programs—and hits them hard—that’s clearly a moral failure. It fosters injustice because it moves us toward a society in which everyone is on their own.
Even ultra-conservatives acknowledge that, yes, we need to offer a safety net for those who can’t provide for themselves. But they insist it needs to be the smallest net possible, because every increase in the size of the safety net hinders personal responsibility, which is their guiding moral good. Anchored in this worldview, their political approach is neither cynical nor uncaring; it is fiercely moral in a tough love sort of way.
And even progressives acknowledge that, yes, we need to respect individual liberty and the role of personal responsibility. But they insist that these things need to be framed by both government regulations and social programs, because that’s how we honor and pursue mutual care, which is their guiding moral good. Anchored in this worldview, their political approach aims neither to coddle the poor nor suppress individual liberty; it is fiercely moral in its own tough love sort of way.
Extend these almost mutually exclusive viewpoints to the current conversations around health care, unions or gun regulation and you can see the same dynamic plays out here, too. Because the grounding values in each worldview are so different, it becomes almost impossible for either side to make an appeal that actually speaks to the other side. But if we simply decry it all as an expression of polarized political discourse we utter only a half-truth, and one that is itself more cynical than insightful.
So here’s my extra bit of insight. The biggest driving force in the collapse of our moral-political conversation is the (relatively) new person in the room: the corporation.
Corporate speech—in the form of advertising, lobbying, and outright political campaigning—is perhaps amoral (although I’m not entirely persuaded of this), but its guiding value is the bottom line: economic profitability. Its goal is not to generate personal responsibility, individual freedom, or mutual care. Its goal is to generate dollars by selling products, shaping policy, and electing business-friendly politicians.
But here’s the problem: the moral goods of personal responsibility and individual liberty, embraced so fervently by my conservative compatriots—goods which might well be necessary to counter balance my progressive ‘blind spots’—are presently being grotesquely (mis)used by amoral corporate voices.
The only guiding value that gun manufacturers, insurance companies, pharmaceutical giants, and other multinational corporations have is profit. (Yes, there could be other values—social values—built in to the equation, but those values are largely and increasingly excluded. And decisions like Citizens United suggest we are entering an era in which money can and will seek to monopolize all speech.)
And it just so happens that by throwing their weight behind the citizen voices that are wed to (genuinely felt) values of personal responsibility and individual liberty corporations see an opportunity to create a social-political-economic climate that is perfect, not for flesh and blood human beings but for corporate “persons” and corporate profits. As a result, corporations (which are not even really “groups of people,” since they operate by principles that actual individual persons could not respectably or inconsequentially embrace) elevate one otherwise legitimate voice in the present debate to an irresponsible and inhuman level of rigidity. I’m not sure that either liberals/progressives or conservatives recognize this.
But to the extent they succeed, corporations will use this moment to create a climate that will rather quickly be all too happy to extinguish both personal responsibility and individual liberty soon after it erases the safety net and other mechanisms for mutual care. It will be a climate that is toxic for conservatives and liberals alike.
Corporations are far more likely to usher us into a dystopian world like that of The Matrix than machines. To a large extent they already have.
Democracies work best when they foster public space where real citizens are invested in exploring—and debating—the best wisdom for pursuing a shared life. Competing and even conflicting values are not the problem. The problem right now is that one “person” in the conversation does not espouse human values at all. Corporate personhood is playing us all for fools. If we can’t see this and stop it, the next “sequester” won’t cut budget dollars across the board, it will silence citizen voices across the land. All of ours.
So, to my conservative Tea Party compatriots I say, for America’s sake, it’s high time to tell corporations to butt out of the conversation that we need to have with each other.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). He and Margaret have a blended family of five children, five grandchildren, and assorted animals that approximate a peaceable kingdom. A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at http://www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”