The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Armed with a smile, David Cobb tells a tale about challenging corporate rule

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Accompanied by folk music and armed with a smile, David Cobb began his lecture by asking the audience: “How many of you believe that ‘We the People’ are ruling in the United States?” When only a few hands went up, he continued, “This is a sign that America is being ruled by a small, few elite.”

David Cobb, a trial lawyer, political activist and former Green-Party presidential candidate, is currently the National Projects Director of Democracy Unlimited. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the political coalition Move to Amend. Born in Texas, Cobb attended the University of Houston Law School before becoming a lawyer. Since then, he has sued corporate polluters, lobbied elected officials and has been arrested for non-violent civil disobedience.

Cobb came to the Rockefeller Center to tell a story about corporate rule, incorporating the concepts of democracy, sovereignty, legal personhood and corporations. He argued that government rule needs to be given back to the people because in this country, the people have the authority to make decisions on how they organize and govern themselves. He stated he is willing to work with any coalition on the political spectrum to achieve civil liberties and urged the audience to abandon party lines in order to make real differences.

Cobb then moved to the topic of legal personhood, or the ability to assert rights under law and have those rights acknowledged under law. The concept of who is a “legal person” has been one of the most fundamental questions in our legal history, as well as one of the most contentious. Cobb says that corporations have gained a substantial degree of power since the time they were legally created. 

For example, it is relatively easy to create a “corporation” today. Corporate power was then substantially fortified in 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled corporations are essentially considered persons with rights in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. David Cobb and Move to Amend believe that corporations are, in fact, legal fictions and therefore should not be entitled to the same constitutional rights as humans in the context of today’s society.

David Cobb emphasized that he is not “anti-corporation” and neither is Move to Amend. In fact, he believes that corporations are simply “tools” – nothing more, nothing less. Where the problem lies, according to Cobb, is that our legal, political and economic system is allowing these powerful tools to be used for destructive purposes, such as social injustice and exploitation. 

How do we try to fix this broken system? “If you want systemic change, you need to vote and get involved in organizations that are involved in collectivizing power to work together and make demands,” says Cobb. “We need to give the government back to the people who created it.”

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences