This post first appeared at The Nation.
Magna Carta reminds us that no man is above the law.
And it should be celebrated for that.
But it should not be imagined that Magna Carta established democracy, or anything akin to it.
The great British parliamentarian Tony Benn put it well several years ago when he noted, as this 800th anniversary of Magna Carta approached, that we still do not have democracy.
“Don’t look at historic documents but treat them as part of the language and words that help us understand what we have to do,” said Benn, who died in 2014 at age 88.
As queens and presidents celebrate today’s anniversary of Magna Carta, with all their pomp and circumstance, we the people should be focused on what we have to do.
If we respect the notion that the rule of law must apply to all — the most generous interpretation of the premises handed down across the centuries from those who on June 15, 1215, forced “the Great Charter of the Liberties” upon King John of England at Runnymede — then surely it must apply to corporations.
And, surely, the best celebration of those premises in the United States must be the extension of the movement to amend the US Constitution to declare that corporations are not people, money is not speech and citizens and their elected representatives have the authority to organize elections — and systems of governance — where our votes matter more than their dollars.
Millions of Americans have already engaged with the movement to amend the Constitution to overturn not just the Supreme Court’s noxious 2010 decision in the case of Citizens United v. FEC but a host of other decisions that have permitted billionaires and corporate CEOs to define our politics and policies. Sixteen states have formally urged Congress to move an amendment, as have more than 600 communities. Democratic and Republican members of Congress are supportive. One presidential candidate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, has penned an amendment proposal, while others, including Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, say they are open to the prospect.
But this movement, like every movement to amend the Constitution in a way that upsets the status quo, still faces plenty of obstacles. Politicians and media outlets that benefit from a system defined by blank checks and millions of negative ads continue to resist the logic of this reform — and the prospect of robust democracy.
Polls show that the American people know that billionaires and corporations are too influential, and referendum results confirm that the people are ready to amend the constitution to reduce that influence. But to translate those sentiments into real change will require more campaigning by the groups that have moved this project forward, including Move to Amend, Free Speech for People, Common Cause, Public Citizen, People for the American Way and dozens of others.
It will also require citizens themselves to begin to confront elected officials with blunt questions that go to the heart of democracy — and to the heart of the question of whether the rule of law really does apply to all men, all women and all corporations.
Tony Benn, the great chronicler and champion of the long struggle for liberty in Britain and around the world, best outlined the challenge that must be made to those who control our politics and our economics — and who are so inclined to resist change.
Decades ago, Benn outlined “Five Questions for People of Power.”
“What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you use it?
To whom are you accountable?
How do we get rid of you?
“Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions,” said Benn, “does not live in a democratic system.”
For Americans, the answer to that last question is a movement to amend the Constitution so that we can begin to get rid of the overwhelming influence of billionaires and corporations over our politics, our governance and our lives.