The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission re-energized the debate over the proper role of corporations in the political process. Some have welcomed the decision as an application of the Constitution’s limits upon governmental regulation of political speech. Others have bemoaned the decision for equating corporate spending with free speech, thereby depriving government of the power to effectively safeguard the electoral process. Both sides of the debate, however, appear fixated upon a “one-size-fits-all” answer to the question of corporate political involvement. This is both unfortunate and inaccurate, for it undermines the construction of a positive path forward and obfuscates the truth of things.
Corporations are marked by a tremendous degree of variation and diversity, and our approach to corporate involvement in the political process ought to take this important fact into account. Many corporations live up to their characterization as simply profit-maximizing machines. To equate their “speech” with the speech of a human being would seem odd and problematic.
But some corporations belie such characterization. Some are genuine communities—a coming together of investors, business people, employees and customers around a particular vision of the good. They are marked by specific cultures, and adhere to certain principles. Such corporations provide people not merely with goods, services, and jobs, but also the harmony that accompanies a life lived consistently—a life where employment and purchasing decisions are not separate from the value judgments that are constitutive of human character. These corporations should be recognized as “Tocquevillian Associations.” And their participation in the political process ought to be vigorously welcomed. Indeed, their participation in the political process is arguably essential to the health of our democratic republic.