Dred Scott, Citizens United, and the Future of the Democratic Party

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson described the Missouri Compromise as a "firebell in the night," warning of "future bloody conflict." That Act of Congress had allowed the expansion of slavery beyond its original boundaries, into the territory of Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, although limiting it to south of a given latitude, except for the Missouri Territory. As the 19th century progressed and westward expansion did so with it, the Slave Power became ever more concerned with securing the place of the "peculiar institution" in that expanding territory. Even though it appeared to be unlikely that slaves could be used productively for the kinds of farming and cattle raising opportunities that the Great Plains could offer, the Slave Power still saw them as a potentially huge market for slaves.

And increasingly, the breeding of surplus slaves for sale (yes, treating human beings as commodities) was becoming a profitable business for certain slave owners. These policies, and others, increased the resistance in the North, not to slavery in the slave states, but to its further expansion westward. Then, a major Supreme Court decision, going well beyond the necessary legal boundaries of the case, greased the skids towards the "future bloody conflict" that Jefferson had predicted.

The Dred Scott case (1) could have been decided narrowly, dealing solely with the question of whether a slave, living for a significant amount of time in a Free State was entitled to sue as a citizen in an attempt to maintain his freedom and avoid being returned to slavery. Or, if entitled to sue, was there a "once-a-slave-always-a-slave" rule applying to persons who were not covered by the Fugitive Slave Act (Scott was not a fugitive)? But a Slave Power-dominated Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, went well beyond the requirements of the case to rule, among other things, that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. One outcome of that decision was to potentially allow the expansion of slavery into the all of the Western territories. Even before Dred Scott one of the nation's then two major political parties, the Whigs, had split into two, over the question of the westward expansion of slavery. When the "Republican" Northern Whig party won the four-way election of 1860 on a platform of no expansion/no interference with the slavery as it then existed, we all know what happened.

Parallels now? Since the first Reagan election the Corporate Power has been gradually expanding its hold on both the economy and the political process of the United States. The Citizens United decision (2) can be seen as our era's Dred Scott decision. A Supreme Court with a majority beholden to the Corporate Power (just as at the time of Dred Scott the Supreme Court was almost entirely beholden to the Slave Power [2, pp. 86-7]) could have ruled narrowly, on the matter specifically before it: the justification of the Federal Election Commission's classification of a "documentary" (campaign) film attacking Hillary Clinton from the right. But like the Taney Court, the Roberts Court went way beyond the particular issue at hand, to rule that unlimited campaign contributions (oh yes, supposedly "independent" of the candidate being supported) would be permitted and that that could be made anonymously. This among other things essentially gutted the McCain-Feingold Act which had put some limits on "independent" political advertising, just as Dred Scott gutted the Missouri Compromise.

The Corporate Power, which totally dominates the U.S. economy, is on its way to own, literally, the whole of the U.S. political process as well. The GOP totally serves the interests of the Corporate Power: achieving as much environmental, financial, and workplace de-regulation as possible; making sure that nothing significant is done about global warming; continuing reduction of personal and corporate income taxes; continuing destruction of the U.S. labor movement; and eliminating virtually any Federal programs other that those concerned with the military, American imperialism, and domestic repression. It is well-known that the Democratic Party to date has offered little organized resistance to this process. I (3) am not the only one who has held that if a further descent into Corporatocracy is to be prevented, the development of a Progressive Democratic Party is absolutely essential. And it would be essential, obviously after the 2012 election, whether or not President Obama is re-elected, for many reasons which we do not have to discuss here.

Certain noises have been made in this direction, such as the creation of the "People Budget"/"Bernie" [Sanders] Budget (4), which goes in an entirely different direction from that taken by the President. Former Congressman Alan Grayson (5), seeking to return to the House this year, also talks very differently from the current leadership of the Democratic Party. But there has been no talk yet that I have heard of, of making concrete moves in this direction, from the left. But then, lo and behold, the first open shot towards splitting the party comes not from the left, but from the right. For example, Sen. Joe Manchin, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Rep. Rick Rahall, of West Virginia, have all announced that they will not be attending this year's Democratic National Convention (6). Their state has apparently become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the coal industry. Sounds like a split to me, to which I say: "Hurrah!"

Our nation cannot afford to have one political party totally beholden to the Corporate Power while the other, only partially beholden to it, keeps its powder wet. There is simply no consistent, strongly positioned, strongly voiced opposition to the Corporate Power. (For starters along those lines, do see Alan Grayson's website.) If the nation is not to become totally oppressed under it, which process would necessarily lead to an authoritarian state as economic misery becomes ever more wide-spread, a strong opposition to it must be developed. I have been waiting for signs of the splitting process to begin, from the left. Well, the leadership of the West Virginia Democratic Party has begun it from the right. (Ironically, the state was formed during the Civil War by a split of the anti-slavery counties in the northwest from what had become the political center of the Confederacy. Virginia itself is still a state that celebrates, with statues along a major boulevard in its capitol, Richmond, the cream of the Rebel leadership: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, "Stonewall" Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart.) It is now up to some political leadership, within the Democratic Party, from the left, after the 2012 election, to pick up the gauntlet that has been thrown in our faces.


Addendum: On the matter of “Dred Scott” v. “Citizens United,” an astute reader noted that:

“Chief Justice Taney declared that Dred Scott, a person, is property. Chief Justice Roberts declared that corporations, property, are persons. If a decision requires denial of reality, it's wrong.”



1. Stampp, K.N., America in 1857, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, chap. 4: "President, Chief Justice, a Slave Named Scott."

2. Toobin, J., "Annals of Law: Money Unlimited: How Chef Justice Roberts Orchestrated the Citizens United Decision" The New Yorker, May 21, 2012.

3. "It's Time to ‘Whig It'," http://blog.buzzflash.com/node/12362

4. http://cpc.grijalva.house.gov/index.cfm?sectionid=70; http://www.bernie.org/action/bernies-progressive-budget/

5. http://www.congressmanwithguts.com/

6. Siddiqui, S., "West Virginia Democrats to Skip Democratic National Convention," The Huffington Post, June 18, 2012.


An earlier version of this column was published on BuzzFlash@Truthout on Thu, 06/21/2012.