Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Most Important Political Story Of The Last Year

It happened today.

The Supreme Court, in response to an obscure case related to campaign finance law, ruled that under the First Amendment, corporations have the right to spend UNLIMITED MONEY to influence elections.

Now, I've known vaguely that the ruling in this case was coming. And I assumed that the conservative Roberts Court would take the opportunity to strip away some aspect of campaign finance law. But, oh my God, this opens the floodgates. The 5 - 4 ruling (*Can you guess who was on which side? Find the answer at the bottom) overturns about a century of precedent that the government has the right to limit corporate money in elections. The ruling essentially enshrines the reactionary idea that corporations have the same rights as people and that political spending is free speech.

So you have the right to contribute $50, write a letter to the editor of your local paper, and volunteer down at the local campaign office in support of you favorite candidate. And now ConocoPhillips has the right to launch a billion dollar campaign for its favorite candidate.

Remember when conservatives railed against "activist" judges? Well, what do you call these judges?

This is a kick in the gut to anyone who still cares about the increasingly antiquated idea of representative democracy. I'm still trying to catch my breath. This ruling makes elections a joke. It changes everything. And it's not just that corporations will be able to run the only election campaigns that matter. The ruling implies that even more limits on corporate and super-rich political spending will be removed.

The court's ruling says that corporations must be allowed unlimited spending in support of a political candidate. The ruling did not touch existing laws that prohibit a corporation from donating directly to a candidate. Catch that? So Wal-Mart can now run the biggest parallel, shadow campaign that you've ever seen in support of its candidate, but it can't donate directly to the candidate's campaign. Not that the distinction matters much at this point. But if corporations are people, and political donations are "free speech," on what basis do any limits on corporate political spending stand? The Roberts Court basically says, No basis at all. And on what basis can the government limit a billionaire's "free speech" if he wants to donate, oh, just a billion to his favorite candidate?

To be sure, the people's opposition to this corporate power grab is rising to its feet. But like any mass popular movement, it's going to be sloooow. A coalition of public interest organizations has already thrown together a site called and a YouTube video:
One of the best lines from the video puts the situation in perspective:
"In 2008 the Fortune 100 corporations had $600 billion in profits. Now imagine that those top 100 companies decided to spend a modest 1 percent of their profits to intervene in our politics and to get their way. That would mean $6 billion... or double what the Obama campaign spent, the McCain campaign spent, and every candidate for House and Senate [in 2008]."
So all the usual rag-tag democracy-defending organizations are going to rise up against this. But we've also got friends in high places. The White House and Congressional Democrats have been quick to say that they won't let this decision go unanswered. But with the Senate unable to do anything important these days, it's hard to see how Congress is going to do much of anything about this.

On a final note, maybe you, reader, still think of yourself as a "moderate" and you generally say things like, "Oh, I dunno. Democrats are good on some things, and Republicans are good on some things. It probably evens out." Well, this moment provides a crystal clear contrast between the core values of the two major parties. Take a look at what leaders from each party are saying, and ask yourself if there really is a "middle ground" here.

Here is Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:

"For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process. With today's monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups by ruling that the Constitution protects their right to express themselves about political candidates and issues up until Election Day."
Yes, Mitch, for too long corporations have been deprived of their rights by the little people with their pesky laws!

And here is Democratic President Barack Obama:

"With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans. This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington--while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates. That's why I am instructing my Administration to get to work immediately with Congress on this issue. We are going to talk with bipartisan Congressional leaders to develop a forceful response to this decision. The public interest requires nothing less."

Hey, if he keeps talking like that, in 2012 he'll face a Republican opponent with a $500 billion campaign!
*Answer: Roberts (Republican-appointed), Alito (R-appointed), Scalia (R-appointed), Thomas (R-appointed), and Kennedy (R-appointed) in majority opinion for corporatocracy. Stevens (R-appointed), Breyer (D-appointed), Ginsburg (D-appointed), Sotomayor (D-appointed) in minority opinion for democracy.


Mason said...

Yes, this is a devastating decision. Bad policy is one thing-it can be corrected with a few democratic votes and a new congress, but a foundational supreme court decision is another. Not only is a SC decision like this seldom overturned, but the decision itself even has a direct impact upon the likelihood that it will be overturned. It will get much worse before it gets better. Maybe I don't understand the decision well enough, but every Dem and progressive organization in the capital should be jumping all over this.
I still don't know what kind of legislation would be passed in response to the decision. Couldn't the court just strike down as unconstitutional any law that tries to reverse the decision?
I feel like I'm still in the Bush years....our country's future is slipping away.

Dave said...

I noticed this morning that I had emails from both and Organizing for America about this. So maybe the Left is starting to realize what just happened.

I agree that the way the Supreme Court did this, it's going to be a monumental undertaking to correct it. There seems to be talk about new campaign finance laws that replace some of what's just been lost. But you're right, what's to keep the court from striking it all down as illegally limiting "free speech."

The real answer may be the hardest one: amend the Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court's decision and establish forever that the First Amendment applies to people, not corporations. That's what is calling for.

Camp Papa said...

This is an utterly ridiculous decision. I remember the good old days when the court actually advanced the cause of individual freedom. The fix should be approached on many fronts. A constitutional amendment is the stake in its heart, but also share-holders should demand corporate restraint, consumers should punish corporations who inject themselves obtrusively into the political process, and then there is direct action...

Wifey said...

I just don't have any idea how this happened. I really don't. It's almost obscene. Even Fox News calls this stunning.

This quote is painful -
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the main opinion, which reads in part that there is "no basis for allowing the government to limit corporate independent expenditures."

Maybe this will finally garner enough attention and analysis, and have the full support of Congress for some serious and comprehensive campaign finance regulation put in place.

Then again, the McCain Feingold legislation was there.

I have no positivety left.

Don't they understand how campaigns are run? And won?

If I were still in politics, and was running campaigns, I would have an absolute field day with the money I could get for all the different get-out-the-vote stunts. It absolutely boggles my mind.

Dave said...

Wifey, that's right, you worked on the Hill, didn't you? So imagine if you were the Chief of Staff for some freshman member from a swing district right now. And you're wondering about how to energize your voters and get them to the polls in November. Hmmm, why not just do a little favor for whatever company you want and have them take care of it ENTIRELY?

About McCain-Feingold and other campaign finance laws...I think this ruling means that none of them are safe.

Elizabeth said...

1. Mitch McConnell= ridiculously unattractive

2. Is it bad to pray that one of the Rs on the bench mysteriously comes down with a deadly case of swine flu?

3. I wonder if there might be a backlash by "the people" when they see ads put on by corporations, especially if they're negative. Could the savvy politician successfully "call a spade a spade" and turn corporate advertising/influence-peddling upside down? What would happen if every single Progressive Senator (can you name them, please?) said "Hey American public! Corporation X just approached me and said they would run a million dollar campaign for me if I vote against YOUR best interest." (Of course this would mean Members of Congress would have to be men and women of integrity, which I'm still not sold on)

Basically I still think that deep down inside the majority of Americans don't want Wal-Mart directly telling them who to vote for. Could this be the straw that breaks the "corporations are your friends" camel's back?

Dave said...

1. I'm unqualified to comment.

2. Um, yeeeeaaaah, I'm pretty much certain that's bad.

3. I think it will be hard to call out specific corporations, because they will use front groups. Sort of like they already do. We'll just see truckloads of money flowing into the Chamber of Commerce and other similar groups for political operations. Future "Swift Boat Veterans For Truth" will have limitless money at their disposal that could be coming from 20 different companies.

That will make it a little harder for the honest progressive Senator. The concept of exposing them could be the same as you describe, but I think there would be more layers of the onion to peel back first. I do hope this is part of an awakening of anti-corporate power activism. And combined with the building fight over financial regulation and other stuff, it may not be unreasonable to hope for that.