Citizens United Critics Take a Dim View of the Electorate
November’s PRESIDENTIAL election is not only a test between two candidates but also a test of democracy. How much, really, does the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission undermine the electoral process?
Citizens United is the controversial 2010 decision that, by a 5-4 margin,struck down a number of federal campaign finance restrictions. The court concluded that not only did citizens individually have a right of free speech, but so did associations of citizens — meaning unions, non-profits, and, the ultimate bogeyman, corporations. And since they had those rights, significant limitations on speech — including restrictions on spending — were not allowed.
That verdict provoked a furious reaction, including a State of the Union drama between President Obama and Justice Samuel Alito (with Obama decrying the ruling from the podium while Alito mouthed, “Not true”). Former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann said at the time that the decision would “have more dire implications than Dred Scott,” the court’s infamous pronouncement that African-Americans were not citizens. Fred Wertheimer, the long-time president of Common Cause, predicted “unprecedented opportunities for corporate ‘influence-buying’ corruption.” Opposition wasn’t only from the left. Senator John McCain (“I’m ashamed of the United States Supreme Court”) and Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snowe (a “serious disservice to our country”) have been adamant in their disagreement.
After all of this criticism, many had hoped that perhaps one justice, at least, might reconsider. But just last week, in a case overshadowed by the court’s upholding of national health care, the justices had such an opportunity — a Montana state law — and turned it down. The campaign-finance reform crowd was infuriated. One Washington Post columnist branded the Supreme Court “of, by, and for the 1 percent.” Calls now mount for a constitutional amendment.
Why all the anguish? The thinking of those appalled by Citizens United is not especially complimentary to the electorate. With corporations (unions and nonprofits are for some reason exempt from their ire) now able to pour as much money as they want into advertisements, they will in essence control the nation’s democracy. The will of the people will give way to the will of the boardroom.
Of course, the only way that this could be true is if, in some fashion, voters were unable to resist the siren song of advertising. That seems to be the theory, however: Voters are easily led and easily bamboozled, pushed this way and that by whatever ads they happen to encounter.