Friday, September 28, 2012

Reason #258: Citizens United - No, Really

Might as well get this out of the way right off the bat--in the abstract, money is indeed free speech.

In the original Supreme Court case that decided as much, Citizens United v. FEC, "Citizens United" was a nonprofit, non-party-affiliated (in the SuperPAC sense) group that had produced an anti-Hillary Clinton movie years before the 2008 presidential election, and wanted to release it on-demand to influence the results of the Democratic primaries (which Clinton ended up losing regardless, so hey).

Surprisingly, CU actually initiated court proceedings on the matter themselves, in an effort to forestall a possible violation of the infamous (now infamously irrelevant) 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign reform law. A judge originally ruled that the film did in fact run afoul of McCain-Feingold, and only in 2010, after two years of appeals, did the Supreme Court make its famous ruling that CU had a First Amendment right to broadcast the film.

And in that respect...I agree with them. The problem, in my opinion, is that unlimited corporate spending is in the same realm as shouting fire in a theater--yes, to prohibit it is to infringe upon someone's free speech, but in certain special cases the public interest outweighs the Bill of Rights. And in a practical, non-abstract sense, Citizens United has the potential to do far more harm to the public interest than causing a riot during Hotel Transylvania.

But this is a blog about good things the government does, isn't it? So let's talk about that how far that potential goes.

Now that I'm digging a little deeper into my subjects on this blog, I've been talking a lot about the nation's ability to self-correct when faced with existential problems. I see it in many places, and sure, you can staple a broad enough philosophy onto any sequence of events and say "look, that proves it!", but the alternative is a world where centuries of real progress can be destroyed in an eye-blink if we pass the wrong law or elect the wrong leader--and I think a lot of people would agree that America is stronger than that.

So what happens when money is free speech? Well first, of course, you see way, way more of it--Sheldon Adelson, the poster child for Citizens United run amok, has not only broken the record for individual spending on single election season, but tripled it; and there's still a month to go. Of all outside spending (meaning not by the campaigns or political parties) being done on the presidential race, 78% of it is donations made possible by CU. And sure enough, Romney and his supporters have been largely outspending the other side--$24 million to $19 million just this week, which is unheard-of for elections with an incumbent president.

Yet no matter how much Sheldon Adelson hates Barack Obama, his money can't polish the turd that is Mitt Romney. Every idiotic comment Romney makes, in fact, sinks the real-world value of an Adelson dollar lower and lower. And meanwhile, the race is getting tighter and tighter, and the battleground map smaller and smaller. States that were up in the air a few months ago are now largely settled; their trajectories largely established. And all those millions of dollars' worth of TV spots are being dumped into fewer and fewer markets.

For anyone who looks at Citizens United and doubts the limits of corporate ad spending, I have five words for you: "apply directly to the forehead".

Of course, none of this means I don't still disagree with CU philosophically. It should be gotten rid of, and I think it will be eventually, either by a constitutional amendment or a future Supreme Court. But I don't think that will be what kills it, because it will already have died a much slower and more demeaning death: that of irrelevance.

Further Reading

Supreme Court Shreds Campaign-Finance Laws, Lifts Corporate Spending Restrictions

Wikipedia - Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Billionaire Adelson sets new US political donation record - report

First Thoughts: Obama's closing ad (with 40 days to go)

Citizens United Ruling Accounts for 78 Percent of Outside Campaign Spending

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