‘We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights’

Adam Winkler, Liveright, 471 pages, $28.95. In his new book, Winkler, a UCLA law professor, puts corporate power center stage. Beginning with the story of how corporations came to be seen as consummately “private” economic actors in the first place, he methodically charts how they gained political privileges. For most Americans, the current debate stems from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. In January 2010, a 5-4 majority invalidated provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform legislation that prohibited certain types of “electioneering communications” by corporations and unions, on the grounds that those groups represented, in Justice Samuel Alito’s words, “associations of citizens” who enjoyed the right to free speech. As Winkler recounts, the ruling sent shock waves through American politics. Quickly, a groundswell of activism pushed back. And now virtually unrestricted corporate campaign giving has exacerbated the hyperpartisanship that defines national politics. Wink­ler’s deeply engaging legal history, authoritative but accessible to nonlawyers, takes readers inside courtrooms and corporate offices as he reconstructs 200 years of case law. Throughout, he overlays the pursuit of corporate civil rights onto American history, from the English corporate colonies to the Bank Wars and Hobby Lobby. This meticulous retelling of our nation’s past leads to Winkler’s argument: Citizens United, however wrongly reasoned, was not an aberration in American law.