It’s a democracy problem

They billed it as the best education dollars I would ever spend, and having spent a lot of education dollars in my time, I now agree. What was it? The Democracy School in town a few weeks ago, otherwise known as a boot camp in civics. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and here’s why: in twenty-four hours we read more original history sources than I read in two full semesters of doctoral seminars in U.S. history at one of the top-ranked state universities in the country. And I learned why corporations today have more legal and political power than people and especially what “we the people” can do about it right now.

My community, like hundreds of communities around the country, invited the Democracy School to town because we are in trouble. Our local water, land, and air are threatened by a new wave of oil and gas drilling leases. Here on the Colorado plains we sit atop the Wattenberg Field, one of the top ten natural gas–producing fields in the country. In November oil was found in the field in Weld County, the next county over. The oil and gas sit 6,000 feet below the surface in the Niobrara Formation, a layer of shale laid down almost 90 million years ago. Because the oil and gas are bound up in shale, the only way to extract them is by fracking.

Citizens are feeling under siege. While the governor recently became the spokesperson for the oil and gas industry in a radio ad for fracking, citizens are asking tougher questions—questions about clean air and water and safe land. Several local governments recently passed moratoriums on new drilling permits, driven by data showing that Weld County has higher methane pollution (link updated to 2013 story) than top drilling sites like Houston.

Still, people here sense that nothing they can do will make a difference in the long run. Will we too feel the grinding inevitability of corporate power?

Ben Price of Democracy School says, definitely not!

“You don’t have a fracking problem, you have a democracy problem,” Ben announced in the first ten minutes of Democracy School. And then he and Gail Darrell proceeded to show us why. For twenty-four hours (one evening and all the next day), we sat around long tables and pored over writings going back to the beginnings of American democracy, back even farther than that to the Magna Carta and all the ideas about property that the Western world has lived with since then—and has foisted onto others through colonialism.

It turns out that even in the United States, many of our laws have less to do with democracy and more to do with guaranteeing that the elite few get to keep accumulating property and wealth. (More on this—a lot more on this—in future posts.) What I had never studied was the legal history of this country, and in certain ways when it comes to democracy it’s not a very pretty picture.

For instance, beginning in the early 1800s, the Supreme Court step by step found that corporations are deserving of the same protections as human beings. (Keep in mind that a corporation is not a person; a corporation is a form of property.) In the Democracy School we learned that Citizens United is but the most recent expansion of those corporate rights. While the Supreme Court claims not to set precedent, in fact it took a great deal of precedent setting over two hundred years to begin applying the Bill of Rights to property (corporations) in addition to people. Step by step, we reviewed each of the pivotal cases in which the Court “discovered” corporations to be contained within the various amendments of the Bill of Rights and then extended protections to them that were never intended to extend to property.

We learned too why local communities, by law, have less power than do corporations. If local citizens feel besieged when corporations come in and do what they wish with local lands, we learned that there is good legal reason for it. (More on state and local relationships later.)

But, most of all, we learned too what local citizens can do. And that will be the topic of what I suspect will be a lot of future posts.

In the meantime, next up: How the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia rolled back the democratic gains of the American Revolution.

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2 Responses to It’s a democracy problem

  1. Kathleen Christensen says:March 12, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Such a strange state of affairs! Am definitely looking forward to your future posts on what citizens can do about this.

    If you’d like to read more, my friend Ted Nace wrote a book a few years ago about this very topic: “Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy.” Haven’t read it yet, but I suspect (knowing Ted) that it’s quite good. It’ s at

  2. Kathy Kaiser says:March 13, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    It’s really frightening how much power corporations have. Thanks, Priscilla, for bringing this to our attention.