As American democracy continues to be hijacked by big corporate donors in the aftermath of Citizens United, Brazil’s Supreme Court took an entirely different approach on Thursday and banned corporate contributions to political campaigns and parties. The ruling is a major victory for Brazilian democracy and marks a re-elevation of the rights of the people above those of corporations and their coffers. In a prognosis that applies just as easily to America, Justice Rosa Weber said in defense of the decision that “the influence of economic power culminates in turning the electoral process into… an odious pantomime that turns the voter into a puppet, crumbling in one blow citizenship and democracy.” Hopefully, America’s courts can take a lesson from Brazil and the growing chorus of American lawmakers calling for the overturning of Citizens United, which lifted limits on corporate political spending using the ludicrous logic that corporations are people whose money is protected as speech under the first amendment.
The Brazilian court’s 8-3 ruling to block such financing was driven by an enormous corruption scandal in which almost $4 billion in bribes were given by various construction and engineering companies in exchange for vastly inflated contracts from the state energy company, Petrobras. Former Petrobras executives have revealed that much of the money was funneled to the energy giant through contributions to political parties that were at the time legal under a 1995 law allowing corporations to give as much as 2% of their annual gross revenue – which for a giant like Petrobras amounts to an astonishing $2.9 billion – in each election cycle.
Despite the abuse and sabotage of democracy that the Petrobras scandal – along with another involving the giant firm Andrade Gutierrez and World Cup construction – made plain, right-wing members of Brazil’s Congress are seeking to introduce a new measure that would again allow corporate political spending, albeit at lower levels. Thankfully, President Dilma Rousseff of the left-wing Worker’s Party has vowed to use her veto to prevent any re-introduction of corporate control in Brazilian elections.
Unfortunately, when it comes to corporate domination of elections, the United States is hardly better off than Brazil. While some 90% of political donations in Brazil’s most recent elections were from corporations, in the 2012 American election cycle about 80% of political donations came either from corporations, super PACs, or large private donors with close ties to major corporations. In a telling indication of the degree to which money buys elections under Citizens United, an astonishing 91% of elections in the United States are won by the better-financed candidate, with much of this money of course coming from large corporate donors.
And, again like Brazil, this corporate domination of politics has led to major conflicts-of-interest as dozens of politicians, and especially Republicans, are beholden to corporate backers from the billionaire Koch brothers to the big Wall Street banks. Moreover, there have been numerous instances of out-and-out corruption in recent years, with prominent republicans from Jeb Bush to Chris Christie to Marco Rubio doing their corporate masters favors in exchange for the donations that win them elections. For the sake of American democracy and the wellbeing of its citizens we can only hope that the wisdom and justice of the Brazilian Court makes its way northwards and the Citizens United rulings are promptly overturned.
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.