First, corporations enjoy a unique legal status – that of discrete persons.
“Corporations gained personhood through aggressive court maneuvers culminating in an 1886 Supreme Court case called Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific. Until then, only We the People were protected by the Bill of Rights, and the governments the people elected could regulate corporations as they wished. But with personhood, corporations steadily gained ways to weaken government restraints on their behavior—and on their growth. After steady progress over the decades, they made huge strides in the 1970s through Supreme Court rulings that awarded them Fourth Amendment safeguards against warrantless regulatory searches, Fifth Amendment double jeopardy protection, and the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. These blunted the impact of the Clean Air Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act, and the Consumer Product Safety Act, which were enacted to protect workers, consumers, and the environment.
They also won court battles that awarded them First Amendment guarantees of political speech, commercial speech, and the negative free speech right not to be associated with the speech of others. On the surface, when the big corporations and We the People have the same rights, they are equal, and the playing field is level. But disparities of scale tip the field toward the corporations at a steep pitch. If a nation-sized corporation with its huge treasury and squadrons of lawyers wants to exercise its free speech rights in a shouting match with a citizen who is exercising her or his free speech rights, can this be a fair fight? “
This long legal record clearly shows that, once America decided that an individual human and Exxon were equivalent under the law for certain rights, it became ever easier for the corporations to gain ever more influence. Thus, contrary to what some commenters are already saying, the ruling striking down the campaign finance restrictions are not unprecedented. Just as the Supreme Court could be expected to grant broad speech rights to actual humans, it must also grant those same (or VERY, VERY similar rights) to the legal persons known as corporations.
Second, the current Supreme Court has a 5-4 conservative majority made up of justices who were put in place by pro-corporation Republican Presidents. Time and again, they have stood up for corporations, and in effect said that what’s good for these behemoths is good for ordinary persons too. So if anyone really expected this Court to rule another way, they need a long vacation so as to reconnect with reality.
More to the point, however, is the question of how Democrats will ever again be able to accomplish anything politically in this country. If you really think about what Democrats (and many Progressives) want to push as part of the political agenda, those issues are anathema to corporations. Does anyone really believe that, freed from the campaign finance restrictions, we won’t now see issue and attack ads from Insurance companies, or coal companies, or vehicle companies all designed to preserve our too big to fail, too stupid to succeed corporate culture? Will Bank of America now wade into Congressional fights and seek to punish those that spoke out against them during the bailout process?
And here's a direct question for my conservative interlocutors: How is what the Supreme Court did yesterday DIFFERENT then the "judicial activism" that judges appointed by Democratic Presidents are accused of?