Leveling the Playing Field 

Corporate money's influence can be countered by individual Americans.

Demonstrators gather outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, as the court heard arguments on campaign finance. The Supreme Court is tackling a challenge to limits on contributions by the biggest individual donors to political campaigns. The case being argued at the high court Tuesday is a test of the Roberts court's readiness to take its most aggressive swipe at campaign finance laws since its Citizens United decision in 2010 took the lid off independent spending by corporations and labor unions.

Citizens United has not caused the political process to fall apart.

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When President Obama delivered his State of the Union last month, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was not in attendance. Not that this was unexpected: Alito has not made an appearance at any of the last four annual events, after the president publicly chastised the high court before both chambers of Congress during his 2010 address.

“With all due deference to separation of powers,” the president complained at the time, “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests … to spend without limit in our elections.” He was referring, of course, to the decision by a majority of the bench in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The case overturned an earlier law prohibiting corporations and labor unions from making “independent political expenditures.” In other words, it told the government it may not prevent associations of individuals from spending money on political speech like commercials, even if that speech is intended to sway the outcome of an election.

The howls of outrage against the ruling were immediate and piercing. Good-government nonprofits were established for no other reason than to trace and bemoan the corruption of our politics by corporate behemoths that had been freed to spend exorbitant sums on campaign advertisements. The last bulwark against money’s influence on our public life had crumbled; never again would an election be fairly fought or fairly won; the scourge of big business was forever upon us.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]
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And in this telling, it is always the corporation that is identified as the villain. Rarely is it mentioned that the ruling also gave a second class of goliath institutions the green light to spend unlimited amounts influencing voters.

Yet according to a list compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, it’s not big business but big labor that has led the way when it comes to independent political expenditures and communication costs. Between 1989 and 2014, no entity reported more in this category than the vaunted Service Employees International Union. It is the only organization whose spending totaled nine figures, and one of just five groups named as having parted with $45 million or more for political endeavors. The others are the AFL-CIO (a union), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (a union), the National Education Association (a union), and the National Rifle Association – Eureka! I knew the right-wing ideologues were guilty of poisoning our discourse.

This all points to an uncomfortable truth for the many liberal defenders of a “clean” electoral process: The groups that have most taken advantage of the Supreme Court’s rulings on money in politics are by and large funneling dollars toward the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party.

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What’s more, the ability of those groups to spend their money on political activities is good for democracy, on balance. Far from serving as the death knell of our way of life, it is one of the great protectors of Americans’ freedom.

Critiques of the Citizens United ruling generally take two forms. The first is that money in politics dirties the process – that it is a candidate’s merits and not the number of dollars spent on his or her behalf that should determine who wins and who loses an election.

This argument overlooks the scale of our national debate. In a country this big, the physical act of speaking may not require money, but the dissemination of a message certainly does.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Certainly, there can be no purer form of speech than the act of giving one, but the venue and the stage and everything else that goes into holding a rally are not free. To be told you cannot use dollars to amplify your speech is to be given the freedom to speak but not to make sound.

At the individual level, we understand that the Constitution safeguards our right to place a yard sign on our front lawn or to hand out flyers on the corner, and we would not countenance a government that stepped in to prohibit us from doing such acts. It is not immaterial that yard signs and flyers take dollars to produce. Money does not make speech dirty – it makes speech possible.

Knowing this, reformers will often pivot to a second criticism. Individual donations are one thing, they argue, but corporate money in politics is a problem. The reasoning seems to be that corporate entities possess resources of such magnitude that it would be possible for them to drown out all other voices. But to the extent that this concern is valid, it is a concern that strengthens instead of undermines the case for corporate speech.

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

The best way to prevent a moneyed few from exercising undue influence over the electoral process is to allow regular Americans of regular means to form associations – that is, to pool their resources into a general treasury. This allows like-minded individuals to access a bullhorn many times larger than any one of them could have hoped to purchase on his own. It ensures the might of money can always find its match in the strength of numbers, be they members of a union, a corporation, a neighborhood civic association, an advocacy group or something else completely.

Critics of Citizens United should be cautious lest they invite a world where a billionaire like Sheldon Adelson can spend as much of his fortune on political speech as he likes and the American Civil Liberties Union can’t.