Recently, a friend of mine, quite conservative, argued that the Citizens United case decided by the United States Supreme Court has not distorted the political process, but was a reaction to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, which was the first serious attempt in ages to restore some sanity to the overwrought process of electing officials of our government. He argued that full disclosure of the source of financing would be the cure-all for the unlimited right of corporations to spend as much money as they wished to ensure the election of candidates that would be less threatening to their bottom line. He also unconvincingly argued that labor unions have the same rights as Exxon, for example and the same amount of monies to spend on their candidates.
Perhaps in an earlier time he would be correct in his assumptions. He referred to a political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, of the 19th century who exposed the Standard Oil trust with his acid pen. These days, however, the scene is quite different. There are so many talking heads on the networks that any position is overwhelmed by the breadth and penetration of varied points of view, but especially subject to advertising saturation ads, both negative and positive. The candidates who win are the ones who can raise the most money and feed it into the overwhelming media exposure they can buy.
The McCain Feingold Act was designed to address two issues: The increased role of soft money in campaign financing, by prohibiting national political party committees from raising or spending any funds not subject to federal limits, even for state and local races or issue discussion;
The proliferation of issue advocacy ads, by defining as “electioneering communications” broadcast ads that name a federal candidate within 30 days of a primary or caucus or 60 days of a general election, and prohibiting any such ad paid for by a corporation (including non-profit issue organizations such as Right to Life or the Environmental Defense Fund) or paid for by an unincorporated entity using any corporate or union general treasury funds. The decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission overturns this provision, but not the ban on foreign corporations or foreign nationals in decisions regarding political spending.
In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Citizens United, ruled that corporations and unions are entitled to the same political speech rights as individuals under the First Amendment. It found no compelling government interest for prohibiting corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make election-related independent expenditures. Thus, it struck down a federal law banning this practice and also overruled two of its prior decisions. Additionally, in an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that the disclaimer and disclosure requirements associated with electioneering communications are constitutional.
These were horrible rulings and serve to do nothing more than further distort our political processes.
Now, “Super Pacs,” ostensibly not connected or coordinating with the candidates are spending untold millions on media commercials to sell the candidates, or even worse, fill the airwaves with negative information, much of it out of context and misleading.
My friend’s full disclosure caveat holds no water, I am afraid.
But from a conservative, the 19th century perspective is not surprising.
We live in an increasingly polarized atmosphere, burdened by the disappearance of moderate Republicans who used to be able to work with moderate democrats to accomplish useful legislation.
Now we cannot even have that. The Republican party has been hijacked by evangelical and social conservatives, backed by millions of dollars, to convince the electorate to vote against their own interests by using their checkbooks to take stands on gay marriage, abortion, contraception, religion in public places and creationism instead of trying to reach an accommodation on education, infrastructure investment, job creation, and expanding the middle class.