Money, Politics, and Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 split decision that the free speech of corporations has been infringed by the inability to use corporate money to directly support or denounce candidates in elections. The origins of the debate go right back to the original formation of American corporations and most specifically back to 1886, in a case which held that corporations were “persons,” holding the same rights as ordinary citizens, such as the right to free speech, the right to lobby the government, etc.

Still, throughout the 20th century, starting with the Tillman Act of 1907, legislators (and judges) have taken steps to limit the spending of corporations, and eventually labor unions, in and around elections, either by contributions given directly to a candidate or advertisements supporting the candidate. Most recently, the McCain-Feingold Act prohibited a corporation, profit or non-profit, from spending funds to advertise a politician or even mention a politician’s name in the month before a general election.

With the notable exception of corporations being able to donate directly to political candidates, all this has changed. Corporations, as they have personhood under current law, shall now be unlimited in their free speech (ironically, spending is considered a form of free speech) regarding political advertisements. The ruling, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission completely overrules Austin vs. Michigan Chamber Of Commerce, which stated that “corporate wealth can unfairly influence elections.” No shit.

And so everyone is freaking out. Well, virtually everyone in office.

Actually, Republicans are up-and-up on the whole thing, except for John McCain and a handful of others, who, with their pro-business stance, see themselves as the main benefactor of the now-conservative court’s decision. Liberals, in general, see it as the worst thing to happen since slavery, with a few commentators comparing it directly to the Dred Scott decision.

There are some interesting side developments to this ruling, such as the concept that foreign companies or foreign governments may be able to spend freely in political advertisements. But the example that continues to be flaunted is the idea that a corporation, if they want to “take down” a particular elected official such as a congressman, will spend millions in campaign advertisements near the end of an election to sway the populace to vote against the candidate. Some have even suggested that a corporation would buy every available spot of advertising on a network for a week, if only for the psychological effect it would have on other politicians not to vote on bills that disfavor that corporation or special interest.

Perhaps I’m being overly neophilic, but I don’t think this is as important anymore. In the days of seven television channels, buying out every spot on a network could certainly have decided the outcome of a race, but in a world where there are millions of websites, thousands of television channels, hundred of satellite and terrestrial radio channels, and still a few newspapers, I somehow don’t believe that such a roadblock of a media buy on a specific channel would make that much of a difference. In fact, with all the money spent on health care television ads and the psychological effect it had on the coverage of the debate, the truth was that that polls on health care reform remained virtually the same throughout these ad campaigns, and on specific issues, opinions hadn’t changed at all. It was only after the Democrats were unable to get their votes and watered down the bill to impotence did the numbers start to significantly change.

And in reality, we’re already living in a world where corporate money is inextricably tied into politics and elections. Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. This simply admits and legalizes what was going on before in bizarre forms, like nebulous political action committees whose existence actually serves to better cloud the puppeteers behind the politicians than direct corporate spending.