Yesterday, the Supreme Court broke America. That may be a little bit hyperbolic, but not by much. If you’re a bit confused about the repercussions of this decision that came down yesterday, this decision that all of your lawyer friends (except those who somehow managed to pass the bar, yet can’t communicate beyond GOP talking points), liberal and conservative, are extremely concerned about, here’s a quick primer. In Citizens United v. FEC (PDF), the Supreme Court struck down over sixty years of precedent and ruled that the government may not regulate spending by corporations in elections. The rules were there for a reason: Because of the deep coffers of, say, Exxon-Mobil or Goldman Sachs, allowing them to spend freely to influence elections very easily overpowers our own rights as citizens. The CEO of Exxon-Mobil was never prohibited from contributing, just like any other citizen. But now the Supreme Court has essentially said that Exxon-Mobil, itself, is a citizen, and entitled to all of the same rights that you and I enjoy in electing our leaders and representatives. Let that sink in for a minute. A little more detail:
The ruling, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205, overruled two precedents: Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a 1990 decision that upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates, and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, a 2003 decision that upheld the part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions.
The 2002 law, usually called McCain-Feingold, banned the broadcast, cable or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or labor unions from their general funds in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general elections.
The law, as narrowed by a 2007 Supreme Court decision, applied to communications “susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.”
With a single, disastrous 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court’ conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.
As a result of Thursday’ ruling, corporations have been unleashed from the longstanding ban against their spending directly on political campaigns and will be free to spend as much money as they want to elect and defeat candidates. If a member of Congress tries to stand up to a wealthy special interest, its lobbyists can credibly threaten: We’ll spend whatever it takes to defeat you.
The majority is deeply wrong on the law. Most wrongheaded of all is its insistence that corporations are just like people and entitled to the same First Amendment rights. It is an odd claim since companies are creations of the state that exist to make money. They are given special privileges, including different tax rates, to do just that. It was a fundamental misreading of the Constitution to say that these artificial legal constructs have the same right to spend money on politics as ordinary Americans have to speak out in support of a candidate.
It’s really hard to excerpt that editorial, because you really need to read the entire thing. You should also read this entire piece by Paul Campos, writing for The Daily Beast:
All this adds up to yet another example, as if one were needed, that conservative complaints about “judicial activism” are usually nothing more than a code for “judicial outcomes conservatives don’t like.” Citizens United strikes down a major federal statute by taking the extreme step of explicitly overturning the Court’ own precedents, while dismissing a century’ worth of congressional attempts to stop special interests from buying legislation. The argument that the relevant legal materials required the Court to take such a step is flatly incredible. In short, the decision is as pure an example of judicial activism as one could hope to find.
As a consequence, we are left in a situation where Congress can do little more to quell the corrupting influence of money on politics than forbid the explicit bribing of elected officials. Such a triumph of laissez-faire ideology gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “the marketplace of ideas.”
Got it? Exxon-Mobil can buy elections more freely than they ever could before. Goldman Sachs can buy elections more freely than they ever could before. The decision essentially cuts out the middleman in US politics, the middleman between corporations and the government. (That would be you and me.) Think of it this way:
Ask yourself this question. If you had to persuade your community about political opinion X, but corporations opposed your view, would you stand a chance knowing that their “political speech” was worth much more than your political speech? The answer is obvious. Mere people have been thrown on the scrap heap. The U.S. Supreme Court is lifting corporations to the top of the evolutionary ladder.
This is bad, people. And this is not just bad for liberals. This is especially bad for groups like the teabaggers and indeed groups like Focus on the Family and their ideological ilk! Those groups seem to think this is great, but that’s because they’re in denial about one simple fact — the GOP and the corporate interests that feed them do not care about the teabaggers and the Religious Right! The teabaggers and the Religious Right are simply useful idiots for them. Do you remember the Bush years? Do you remember how during the campaigns, Bush gave a lot of lip service about “protecting marriage” and a “culture of life,” but did little to nothing on those issues? Okay, under this new ruling, where Wall Street can simply, essentially, buy its candidate in public, there’s no longer any need to consider the interests of the anti-gay, anti-abortion crowd, or the peasants who make up the Tea Party movement!
The great folly of the Tea Party movement is that their adherents run around shouting about how they’re all about the little guy railing against “big gub’mint,” but the policies and candidates they support give power right back to Wall Street and the other big corporations who caused their problems in the first place! There’s a reason the parody group “Billionaires for Wealthcare” refers to the Tea Party movement as employees of Wall Street. File under, “it’s funny because it’s true.” Here’s the next paragraph from that above link:
Teabaggers, do you get it now? You are outraged by your powerlessness. Can you now see the real source of that powerlessness? It is not government. Government has been turned into the handmaiden of the corporate oligarchs.
And you want to talk about liberal causes like the environment, equal rights for LGBT citizens, reproductive rights, etc.? Good luck electing candidates who will do good work in those areas, if a big business entity has decided on a different candidate who doesn’t really care about those things! I want you to watch the primary race between Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Harold Ford, Jr. (Buttboy-Wall Street). Ford is an awful candidate, a corporatist Democrat of the first order. Gillibrand, on the other hand, has shown herself to be an able senator and a great advocate for LGBT people. Well guess who loves Harold? Merrill Lynch and the rest of the Wall Street establishment. I want you to watch to see what, under this ruling, Wall Street does to buy him a Senate seat.
But as I said in the title to this post, the Religious Right simply has no frickin’ clue what just happened, and in predictable fashion, they’re issuing victorious press releases extolling this decision. Kyle at Right Wing Watch has compiled a lot of their reactions, and you should read his whole piece, but I’ll go ahead and excerpt a couple of them for you. Here’s what the Family Research Council, those policy geniuses, had to say:
Under the principles established by the First Amendment, nothing is more foundational than free speech. This is a win for free political speech and the right of corporate citizens to join the political process.
The court’s decision is a step toward restoring open political discourse in this country. Speech should not be truncated by government regulation; rather, transparency should be pursued. The standard of accountability must be full and prompt disclosure, not unconstitutional prohibitions on financial contributions.
You hear that? The right of “corporate citizens” to “join the political process,” as if they weren’t there before! Here’s a reaction from Focus on the Family:
Tim Goeglein, vice president of external relations for Focus on the Family Action, said the pro-family movement will benefit.
“Organizations like Focus on the Family Action, the family policy councils, all of our allies,” he said, “this will give us an incredible voice in the great issues of our time.”
Not when your chosen candidate is running against Wall Street’s candidate! Or, you know, if their “pro-life” candidate is opposing PhRMA’s candidate. In his piece, Kyle quips
Heh. Yeah. Do you all see how bad this is for all of us? Do you see how, in their very words, the Religious Right accidentally argues our side of this, without even knowing what they’re saying? Truly, this is an issue in which the LGBT political community and the Religious Right should be seeing directly eye-to-eye. As I pointed out above, one of the major pieces of legislation this nullified was the most important parts of McCain-Feingold, which was written by the (conservative) John McCain and the (very progressive) Russ Feingold! This is about our rights as citizens in this democracy, at its very core.
Unfortunately, our political culture is so brainwashed into making everything a right-left issue that the luminaries of the Religious Right are going to support this simply because civil libertarians, liberals, “tr’ahl lawyers,” etc. are going through the roof about it. They have literally no clue what happened yesterday.
If this stands, they’ll find out, and they’ll find some way to blame it on liberals, on gays, on George Soros, on whatever the hell else boogeyman they’re yelling about that day.
But they will not be able to say they weren’t warned.
You need to follow this story, and you need to be on the phone with your Congress-critters. The House switchboard is (202) 224-3121. Educate yourself on the issue and make your voice heard.
Sidenote: Guess who was the lead counsel representing Citizens United? Ted Olson. Yes, the same Ted Olson who is currently arguing the Prop 8 case. If one tiny silver lining is to be found in this decision, it may be that the joke about Ted Olson speaking and Anthony Kennedy rolling over like a puppy is true, and it could be a good sign for Perry v. Schwarzenegger. This ruling is still awful.