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The Urgency of a Teddy Roosevelt Moment

Posted on Jan 24, 2010

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

“Populism” is the most overused and misused word in the lexicon of commentary. But thanks to a reckless decision by Chief Justice John Roberts’ Supreme Court and also the greed of the nation’s financial barons, we have reached a true populist moment in American politics.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last week giving American corporations the right to unlimited political spending was an astonishing display of judicial arrogance, overreach and unjustified activism.

Turning its back on a century of practice and decades of precedent, a narrow right-wing majority on the court decided to change the American political system by tilting it decisively in favor of corporate interests.

An unusually blunt headline in Friday’s print edition of The New York Times told the story succinctly: “Lobbies’ New Power: Cross Us, and Our Cash Will Bury You.” 

Think of this rather persuasive moment in a chat between a corporate lobbyist and a senator: “Are you going to block that taxpayer bailout we want? Well, I’m really sorry, but we’re going to have to run $2 million worth of really vicious ads against you.” The same exchange might take place on tax breaks, consumer protections, environmental rules and worker safeguards.


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Defenders of this vast expansion of corporate influence piously claim it’s about “free speech.” But since when is a corporation, a creation of laws passed by governments, entitled to the same rights as an individual citizen? This ruling will give large business entities far more power than any individual, unless you happen to be Michael Bloomberg or Bill Gates.

The only proper response to this distortion of our political system by ideologically driven justices is a popular revolt. It would be a revolt of a sort deeply rooted in the American political tradition. The most vibrant reform alliances in our history have involved coalitions between populists (who stand up for the interests and values of average citizens) and progressives (who fight against corruption in government and for institutional changes to improve the workings of our democracy). It’s time for a new populist-progressive alliance.

This court ruling should also challenge the fake populism we have seen on display of late. It disguises a defense of the interests of the powerful behind crowd-pleasing rhetoric against “Washington,” “taxes” and, yes, “Obama.”

President Barack Obama has helped feed this faux populist revolt by failing to understand until recently how deeply frustrated politically moderate, middle-class Americans are over policies that bailed out the banks while leaving behind millions of unemployed and millions more alarmed about their economic futures.

If average voters came to see government primarily as an instrument of the banks, why should they believe that the same government could help them on matters of health care and employment? This problem was aggravated by puffed-up, self-involved U.S. senators who conspired to make the legislative process look as ugly and chaotic as possible.

Obama began taking a turn toward populism before the results of the Massachusetts Senate race rolled in. Republican Scott Brown’s victory made the new turn imperative.

The president has now offered a modest tax on the big financial institutions to cover the costs of bailouts, and a tougher approach to banks that will limit their size and their capacity to make economy-wrecking financial bets. It’s a decent start, and it’s about time.

Next will come legislation to turn back the Supreme Court’s effort to undermine American democracy. Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen are working with the White House on a measure to rein in the reach of the Supreme Court ruling.

Their bill is still being written, but the ideas they’re considering include prohibiting political spending by corporations that receive government money, hire lobbyists, or make most of their income abroad.

And shouldn’t shareholders have the right to vote before a corporation spends money on politics? Do we want foreign-owned corporations, especially those owned by foreign governments, to exercise an undue influence in our politics? Imagine what an enterprise owned or influenced by the Chinese or Russian governments might try to do to a politician who campaigns too ardently for human rights?

My favorite idea: Requiring CEOs to appear in ads their corporations sponsor, exactly as politicians have to do. (“I’m Joe Smith, the CEO of Acme Consolidated Megacorporation, and I approve this message.”)

President Obama was right to invoke Teddy Roosevelt in his radio address on Saturday. American democracy and the square deal in government for which TR battled are in jeopardy.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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Night-Gaunt's avatar

By Night-Gaunt, February 5, 2010 at 11:20 am Link to this comment

As far as corporations are concerned they are bad for us and are nations unto themselves. They don’t operate to help us just their bottom line. So it is truly irrelevant that they are foreign or local. You will find the many of the biggest corps don’t have their home offices here, but again that would be just window dressing. Once you wake up to that fact then you will understand the need to put them under leashes and if they fail in showing that they benefit us then they are dissolved & no renewal of their charters . That is what is missing these days.

Next on their agneda—nationhood.

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By mike kal, February 4, 2010 at 12:28 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It seems to me that a 28th Amendment, stating that “corporations are not
persons” might be an answer. “Corporate personhood” is wreaking havoc on our

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LocalHero's avatar

By LocalHero, February 1, 2010 at 12:01 am Link to this comment

“Do we want foreign-owned corporations, especially those owned by foreign governments, to exercise an undue influence in our politics? Imagine what an enterprise owned or influenced by the Chinese or Russian governments might try to do to a politician who campaigns too ardently for human rights?”

Are you joking? I’m infinitely more worried about our own domestic military/industrial/pharma/chemical/media corporate complex than ANY foreign entity. Hell, I’d WELCOME some foreign influence!!! Couldn’t be worse than what we’ve got now!

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By Night-Gaunt, January 28, 2010 at 10:30 am Link to this comment

1 in 5 are unemployed (as the gov’t counts it) so it is really twice that number and rising as foreclosers continue at a terrible pace. Shoot us? Look at the history and you will find that yes is the answer to that question. It will be us versus the Gov’t/church/corporation. (Unlike in “V for Vendetta” the troops will fire on unarmed civilians to protect what they have.) We won’t win. (To win at this late stage in their process of hobbling the Republic even as they drain it dry to build their overseas empire would be monumental.) Not with the kind of organization, training and fire power they have access to. Including sonic & microwave based weapons that will incapacitate any size protest. Some have already been tested in occupied Iraq so they know what they can do in the field. Most will simply stay in their homes or at work not wanting to lose either.

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By francfist, January 28, 2010 at 4:08 am Link to this comment

Some of our nations children are already out on the streets due to foreclosures. Do we wait till there is not enough food and they tell us to eat cake?
It did occur to me, if there was a revolt, even if they put us down, would the world laugh at them when they invaded other countries, with their speeches of bringing freedom and democracy?
Would they use an American army to kill us? Would American soldiers obey that command to shoot their fellow citizens?
If they started killing us, would the world intervene?

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By Hulk2008, January 27, 2010 at 3:05 pm Link to this comment

Too bad Tyler Darden (ala Fight Club) was just a fictional character - his “Operation Mayhem” theme was the kind of underground revolt that would be most appropriate for the smug corporate thugs who really run the show here in the U.S. 
  When will the wealthy oligarchs realize We The People clean their ostentatious houses, write their agrandizing software, balance their too-fat bank accounts, pour food into their bloated bellies, and educate their spoiled undeserving progeny ? They all need a check-up from the neck-up. 
  Yesterday Republican Leader Bone-Head basically declared that nothing would be done this election year that didn’t benefit him and his viper brood directly.  Senator Bee-yatch McConnell also said the President’s job was to lead and the Republicans would respond with total rejection of anything he proposes. 
  If anybody votes this midterm either for the spineless Dems or the politically constipated Repubs, they deserve exactly what they get - a whole lotta nuttin’. 
  We should do our best to have every voting slate include an option this year - None Of The Above. 

What if they held a Congress and NObody came ?

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By Night-Gaunt, January 27, 2010 at 12:48 pm Link to this comment

What is going on piecemeal is a counter revolution to the quiet revolution taking place. From organic farms and cooperatives springing up to even the printing of city-only money in place to the FedRes Note instead. There is a movement to live with less and be okay by it too. This while the ultra-rich and their corporations are amalgamating and gaining more control of our gov’t even while they gut its effectiveness without them. Naomi Klien at the end of her superlative book “Shock Doctrine” shows that as of right now our gov’t cannot function without corporate help—-from fighting in the military to logistics to our normal gov’t operations. Now that is deadly and fascistic. Who owns whom?

We need to separate not just church from state but the corporation too and fast.

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By kathy sullivan, January 27, 2010 at 11:46 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We need a peaceful revolution; we refuse to buy corporate products from the big
corporations; we change all of our buying habits to reflect avoiding the biggest
corporations because let’s face it every business just about is incorporated.  we
refuse to vote unless there is someone worth voting for; we refuse to pay taxes en
masse.  we avoid violence at all costs because that is what they are hoping so they
can completely subjugate us.  Start this in one area and it will catch on hopefully

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By Gloria Picchetti, January 27, 2010 at 10:14 am Link to this comment

The basic right of being a citizen of the United States has been taken away by the Supreme Court with this decision.

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By sonny, January 26, 2010 at 10:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Teddy Roosevelt was an unabashed racist and warmonger, not an apt example of a “populist.”

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By wildflower, January 26, 2010 at 1:35 am Link to this comment

Re Dionne: “a narrow right-wing majority on the court decided to change the American political system by tilting it decisively in favor of corporate interests.”

It just shows the American people how high up the corruption goes. It’s like Justice Stevens said: “few outside the majority of this court would have thought its [America’s] flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”  As to the future, I’m thinking news organization should create “tags” for their readers to help the public to see the patterns of corruption -such as:
“With the Environmental Protection Agency expected to release its proposed regulations for power plant coal ash any day now, there is an intense behind-the-scenes lobbying effort by industry interests hoping to keep the waste from being declared hazardous and thus subject to the strictest federal oversight.”

“But it isn’t only industry insiders who are pressing for the regulatory status quo when it comes to coal ash: They’re getting help from U.S. lawmakers—in some cases lawmakers from states that have suffered documented environmental damage from loosely regulated ash dumping. . . . Late last month, 27 Senators from both major political parties sent a letter to the President opposing re-classification of coal ash as hazardous waste. . .”

“However, the ACAA and its government allies fail to mention that the EPA has released additional information . . . That there have been so many damage cases under the current regulatory system raises questions about the letters’ claims that the state regulatory agencies . . . are doing an effective job.

Among the proven coal-ash damage cases documented in EPA’s 2007 assessment:

* In 2002, a sinkhole developed in the coal ash pond at Southern Company-owned Georgia Power’s Plant Bowen near Cartersville, Ga. Eventually spreading four acres wide and 30 feet deep, the sinkhole led to the spill of an estimated 2.25 million gallons of a coal ash and water mixture into the nearby Euharlee Creek.

* Runoff from a fly ash pond at Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station in North Carolina contaminated nearby Belews Lake, which experts have called “one of the most extensive and prolonged cases of selenium poisoning of freshwater fish in the United States.”

* At South Carolina Electric & Gas Canadys Plant along the Edisto River south of St. George, S.C., arsenic consistently has been found in monitoring wells at levels about drinking water standards, while nickel has also been detected on occasion above state standards. Both of those metals are known to cause
cancer in humans.

* Residential wells near a coal ash disposal site for Virginia Power’s Yorktown plant, now owned by Dominion, were found to be contaminated with selenium and vanadium, with selenium levels exceeding drinking water standards. Further investigation found heavy metal contamination in nearby Chisman Creek and its tributaries, with elevated levels of known carcinogens including arsenic, beryllium and chromium.

* Selenium poisoning of fish caused by runoff from coal ash ponds was also documented at reservoirs near Southwestern Power’s Pirkey plant and its Welsh plant in Texas, as well as near Texas Utilities’ Martin Lake plant.

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By Adam Bennion, January 25, 2010 at 7:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

11th Hour Solution4Democracy: 11 Circuits, 11 Justices! Reorganize Supreme Court Now! Simple law requiring less than amendment, more quickly available for emergency now! Pursue all other (amend,public finance), but definitely don’t leave this out! Next Senate session opens with adoption of new Rules at recognition by Vice President of Senate Majority Leader: Majority rule, all votes except where 2/3 mandated by Constitution! No votes4contrary saboteurs!

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By Hammond Eggs, January 25, 2010 at 4:04 pm Link to this comment

A peaceful revolution in the United States in which the vast majority turn their backs on the Republicans and Democrats, stop voting for them and, however clumsily, seek a new direction that will work for average people is not in the offing.  An armed revolt, no matter how wide spread, will be brutally and quickly put down. in its wake, the United States will then descend into the same savagery of history’s most homicidal and nihilistic regimes.  It simply appears we will peter out into exhaustion and apathy.

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By wildflower, January 25, 2010 at 11:53 am Link to this comment

Well, we know Justice Stevens has integrity and common sense:

“Justice Stevens, who served in the Navy during World War II, reached back to those days to show the depth of his outrage at the majority’s conclusion that the government may not make legal distinctions based on whether a corporation or a person was doing the speaking.

“Such an assumption,” he wrote, “would have accorded the propaganda broadcasts to our troops by ‘Tokyo Rose’ during World War II the same protection as speech by Allied commanders.”

The reference to Tokyo Rose was probably lost on many of Justice Steven’s readers. But the concluding sentence of what may be his last major dissent could not have been clearer.

“While American democracy is imperfect,” he wrote, “few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

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By realitique, January 25, 2010 at 11:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I wish “American democracy and the square deal in government” were merely in jeopardy. Sadly, Mr. Dione, they were in jeopardy thirty years ago. Now they are on life support.

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By Night-Gaunt, January 25, 2010 at 11:00 am Link to this comment

The problem is that Obama is the double agent in this whole scenario. He has to appear as one while he acts as another. How to pull off such a thing? Reagan managed to we’ll see if he can but so far it isn’t working. He’s too right wing and it shows in what he does even though the Republicans are dutifully playing the partisan game & running the smoke screen that he is too left wing every chance they get. Such propaganda actually helps keep the mask on!

True T. Roosevelt was a trust buster but he was also a reich winger on family matters so he was contradictory in some areas. A Progressive he was not, only in some areas in others he was Regressive as Newt Gingrich.

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By Jim Yell, January 25, 2010 at 9:29 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I read an article which lead in line was it “wasn’t the money” in reference to this ruling. I understood the article, but felt the lead in was not true. Money put the Republican’s in at a time that justices were to be appointed and they promptly put in idealogues of the extreme right. So this abdication to the power of money was the result of previous back door contributions to American Political movements by corporations.

We need to destroy and disasemble the monopolies held by corporations and inter locking directories and make it a felony to hide the ownership and control of corporations behind false fronts. The punishment should be confiscation of the offending persons wealth, which was a product of this anti-social behavior.

I once worked for a hospital, a supposed public supported hospital. They got a very For Profit Administrator, who of course changed his title to President. Now a well meaning government program hoped to give a chance for hospitals to upgrade their equipment. So this man bought an expensive piece of equipment with government money. Promptly sold it to a rental business and then leased it back. This allowed him to access the money intend for the equipment and then by leasing it back he could use it as an oporation expense. The public generosity made it possible for him to pump up his profit margin twice. My point in bring this up is it is obviously unethical abuse of the programs intention and such double dealing should be a felony, but probably isn’t. Certainly no one challenged him and this I believe is a dynamic common in our business world. They are traitors to the society that sustains them. What are we going to do about it?

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By greenuprising, January 25, 2010 at 9:08 am Link to this comment

No doubt it’s time for a genuine uprising.  But the solution is more patchwork half-measures from a corporation-corrupted Congress and presidency.  The solution is constitutional reform, starting with the Supreme Court.  There would be a groundswell of support for a constitutional amendment that stripped the court of its anti-democratic powers and freedom from accountability.  We could start with the latter.  Simply provide that the personnel of the court have limited, very limited terms, say six years.  And that they be appointed not by our god-king president but by Congress in a simple majority vote (not the rigged, minority-rule 60 vote majority required in the Senate).  We could expect not just more circumspection on the part of sitting members but real chances to overrule the mis-rule of the past.

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By Inherit The Wind, January 25, 2010 at 4:26 am Link to this comment

That’s your answer EJ?  Legislation? 
And how is it going to pass with a totally timid, castrated Democratic leadership afraid of 41 Re-thug senators, everyone of whom WANT corporations to run everything without regulation and without fear of criticism?

No, EJ.  Those panic-stricken Dims need to be more afraid of you and me than they are of the GOP and the corporate slime-ad campaigns that are just in time for the 2010 election.

Mr. Dooley, the fictional Irish immigrant who commented on “ivrything and ivrybody” used to say the Supreme Court followed the voting returns.  Well, clearly this vindictive 5 have decided to show the American voters who is “boss” instead.

Last time someone did that, it as Alan Greenspan deciding to show Wall Street in the late 90’s.  The result? Disastrous policies that domino-ed starting with the collapse of the bubble, encouraged tax cuts for the wealthiest at the WORST time and turned a surplus into a deficit, ultimately creating the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Guess HE showed Wall street!

It sounds like a public movement is needed.  Remember how “Si! Se Puede” turned into a movement stopping draconian anti-immigrant policies?  Well, those folks are probably suffering the WORST of the effects—that’s a foundation for a movement.

I dunno.  But relying on Washington to fix our Democracy clearly doesn’t look like it’s going to work.

Maybe if Obama morphed into a combo of Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson with the ability to grab Senators by the scruff and scare them “straight”...


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