When I first heard about it I was appalled. On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court, in a case that is now usually referred to as Citizens United , overturned the provision of McCain-Feingold barring corporations and unions from paying for political ads made independently of candidate campaigns.
The idea that corporations and unions should have the same free-speech rights as individual people seemed absurd. Organizations are made up of people, it’s true, but corporate decisions are not individual votes. A corporate decision might not even reflect the opinion of the majority of its members. Business organizations are motivated by profit, and properly so, whereas individuals also have societal concerns. (For instance they might be worried that mercury from coal-burning plants is turning up in fish all over the world.) Union leaders too are different from individuals. They are motivated by collective wages and benefits, often to the exclusion of competition concerns. Even more to the point, corporate boards of directors may be vulnerable to the disproportionate personal opinions of wealthy investors, including foreign investors. (Think China.) For an example of one such, we need look no farther than the Koch family , wealthy people who have a passion for influencing politics to their own liking.
Can money influence elections? Absolutely. There is a good reason why Super Bowl ads cost about $ 3 million dollars for a 30-second spot this year. Please consider this story of John Snow of North Carolina, from the New Yorker Magazine. The author said,
That fall, in the remote western corner of the state, John Snow, a retired Democratic judge who had represented the district in the State Senate for three terms, found himself subjected to one political attack after another. Snow, who often voted with the Republicans, was considered one of the most conservative Democrats in the General Assembly, and his record reflected the views of his constituents. His Republican opponent, Jim Davis—an orthodontist loosely allied with the Tea Party—had minimal political experience, and Snow, a former college football star, was expected to be reëlected easily. Yet somehow Davis seemed to have almost unlimited money with which to assail Snow.
“The attacks just went on and on,” Snow told me recently. “My opponents used fear tactics. I’m a moderate, but they tried to make me look liberal.” On Election Night, he lost by an agonizingly slim margin—fewer than two hundred votes.
Relative to this issue, Duane Graham posted an appeal a couple of days ago for a Constitutional Amendment that would forbid financial contributions by corporations to candidates for federal elective office. This would effectively nullify the Citizens United decision, one which was decided 5 to 4, by the way. In his dissent, Justice Stevens said this,
At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.
I must say that I have wrestled with this topic for a number of days now, and Anson
Burlingame’s comments gave me pause as well. His concern as I understand it is that the proposed amendment might forbid paid journalists to write or speak political opinions. But, having re-read the proposed amendment, as Duane notes in his own comment, I see that it would do nothing of the kind. It simply forbids corporate contributions directly to campaigns.
In my opinion, the Amendment should also forbid collective (but not individual, of course) contributions by union leadership. I’m with Justice Stevens on this one – there’s way too much money in our politics, and you know what? People just might be starting to get upset about Wall Street’s hubris, as in “Occupy Wall Street”.