A funny thing happened to the First Amendment on its way to the public forum. It was hijacked.
According to the Supreme Court, money is now speech, and corporations are now people.
Yet when real people without money assemble to express their dissatisfaction with the political consequences of this, they're treated as public nuisances -- clubbed, pepper-sprayed, thrown out of public parks and evicted from public spaces.
The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision last year ended all limits on political spending. Now millions of dollars are being funneled to politicians without a trace.
The limits were eroding even before Citizens United. For years large corporations have been flooding Washington with lobbyists who bundle individual contributions into a formidable war chest, bankrolling more and more lawmakers' campaigns.
And a revolving door has developed between official Washington and Wall Street -- with bank executives becoming public officials who make rules that benefit the banks before heading back to the Street to make money off the rules they created.
Other top officials, including an increasing proportion of former members of Congress, are cashing in by joining lobbying powerhouses and pressuring their former colleagues to do whatever their clients want.
Why else do you suppose tax rates on the super-rich are now lower than they've been in three decades, and why -- even though the long-term budget deficit is horrendous -- those rates aren't rising? Why else do the 400 richest Americans (whose wealth is larger than the combined wealth of the bottom 150 million Americans) now pay an average tax rate of only 17 percent?
Why do you think Wall Street got bailed out without a single string attached -- not even being required to help homeowners to whom they sold mortgages, who are now so far underwater they're drowning? And why does the financial reform legislation have loopholes big enough for bankers to drive their Ferraris through?
And why else are oil companies, big agribusinesses, military contractors and the pharmaceutical industry reaping billions of dollars of government subsidies and special tax breaks?
Experts say the 2012 presidential race is likely to be the priciest ever, costing an estimated $6 billion. "It is far worse than it has ever been," says Republican Sen. John McCain.
Millionaires and billionaires on Wall Street and in executive suites aren't contributing all this money out of sheer love of country. Their political spending is analogous to their other investments. Mostly they want low tax rates and friendly regulations.
Yet all this money is drowning out the voices of average Americans. Most of us don't have the dough to break through. Giving First Amendment rights to money and corporations has hobbled the First Amendment rights of the rest of us.
This is where the Occupiers come in. If there's a core message to the Occupier movement it's that the increasing concentration of income and wealth at the top endangers our democracy. With money comes political power.
Yet as Occupiers seek to make their voices heard about all this, they're told the First Amendment doesn't apply. When they peacefully assemble -- erecting tents in public spaces -- they're attacked and evicted.
Across America, public officials are saying Occupiers have to go. Even in universities -- where free speech is supposed to be sacrosanct -- peaceful assembly is being met with clubs and pepper spray.
Officials object to the encampments. But it's the encampments that have drawn media attention (along with the police efforts to remove them). A bunch of people carrying pickets isn't news. When it comes to making views known, picketing is no competition for big money.
The First Amendment is being stood on its head. Money speaks, and an unlimited amount of it can now be spent bribing and cajoling politicians. Yet peaceful assembly is viewed as a public nuisance and removed by force.
This is especially worrisome now that so many Americans are in economic trouble. The jobs recession grinds on, seemingly without end. Homes are being foreclosed upon. Qualified students cannot afford college. Schools are firing teachers. Vital social services are being axed.
How are Americans to be heard about what should be done about any of this if they are not allowed to mobilize and organize? In standing the First Amendment on its head, public officials are giving moneyed interests a disproportionate say.
Now more than ever, the First Amendment needs to be put right side up. Nothing less than the future of our democracy is at stake.
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. His blog is www.robertreich.org.