Corporations and American Democracy

The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC reignited impassioned debate on how accountable corporations are, and should be, to the democracy. As we think now about the proper role of the corporation in the political process, guidance from the past could prove especially valuable. In fact, much of the Citizens United opinion was an extended debate between Justices Scalia and Stevens on the role of the corporation in American history. Remarkably, the two justices looked at the same limited body of historical work and reached opposite conclusions. The truth is, nobody knows the full history because it hasn’t been written.

What has been the role of the corporation in the history of the American democracy? The Tobin Project has launched a new research inquiry focused on this question, one critically important not only for understanding the Court’s decision, but also for understanding how healthy democracies can be created and maintained. The inquiry will produce a volume that will provide a rigorous history of the role of the corporation in the democracy, from the first American corporations to the large multinationals of today.

Naomi Lamoreaux (Yale, Economics and History) and William Novak (University of Michigan Law School) have signed on to lead this research effort and in May convened an initial group of scholars for a Tobin Project workshop. This group forms the core of a volume that will aim to be the definitive history on the role of the corporation in American democracy over time, from the origins of corporations in the U.S. to the large multinational corporations of today.  

The Tobin Project is excited about the prospect of enhancing the collective understanding of the role of corporations in the American democracy. In fact, this initiative is the first step in a broader undertaking at the Tobin Project on the history of American democracy. By developing a better empirical understanding of the history of our democracy, and of what worked and what didn't for the economy, society and polity, we hope to set the groundwork for more productive public discourse and policy in years to come.