The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has produced a firestorm of upset, from Obama’s lamentable (and false) State of the Union comments to a number of furious emails I have received from liberals horrified that, you know, even corporations have First Amendment protection.
I recognize that there are potential negatives from corporate money flowing into the political arena — just like when labor unions, trade associations, and obscenely rich leftists like George Soros decide to influence the political process. But the danger isn’t what you might think. The money is not dangerous because special interests are directly buying votes. The real danger is that candidates who agree with the special interests (and therefore get contributions from them) have so much more money to spend than the candidates who might actually be looking out for the public good.
This last term, I taught state and local government at a local technical college. When trying to make this point, I gave my students a hypothetical race between three candidates trying to win a party primary:
Mr. Smith supports open borders and no laws prohibiting illegal aliens from working;
Mr. Jones supports our current policy of minimal enforcement of immigration laws, and no serious effort at stopping illegal aliens from working;
Mr. Green supports vigorous enforcement of immigration laws and fines for businesses that knowingly hire illegal aliens.
“So, who are you going to vote for?” Every single student in the class — without exception — said: “Mr. Green.”
I had to break the bad news to them:
No, you are going to vote for Mr. Smith or Mr. Jones. Mr. Smith will raise several million dollars to run for Congress, hundreds of thousands from corporations that like cheap labor and ethnic identity groups who want more power. Mr. Jones will raise a similar amount, and from similar interest groups. Mr. Green will raise $5,000, mostly out of his own pocket and from a few friends. And you won’t see any television ads from Mr. Green.
Maybe, just maybe, a flyer from Green’s campaign will show up in your mailbox. And you will completely miss Mr. Green’s message.
That’s why corporate spending — and labor union spending, and trade group spending, and all the other special groups spending money on politics — is a bad thing for America.
That said, here’s the harsh truth: some corporations have enormous free speech rights to influence the political process, and the same people furiously angry about Citizens United don’t want that to change.
Which corporations? CBS. NBC. ABC. The New York Times. National Public Radio. Your local, nearly always liberal, daily newspaper. Your local, nearly always progressive, weekly “alternative” newspaper. (Okay, Fox News also, because liberals haven’t quite figured out a way to rationalize that Fox News isn’t really a news organization.) And yes, those are corporations. In spite of what you might think, the New York Times and the rest of the liberal/progressive media organizations are not people’s self-governing collectives. What the Citizens United decision says is that if overwhelmingly liberal news corporations get to influence the political process, so do other corporations — a few of whom may not be liberal.
There’s one more element to this process that just makes me both laugh and fume at the same time. There are a number of decisions where liberals have been high-fiving each other for years because the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of corporate freedom of speech — cases such as Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (2001). In that case, the Court ruled that a federal law which prohibited virtual child pornography was unconstitutional. (This is virtual child pornography because it uses a computer-generated image of a child having sex, rather than filming an actual child.) Who argued for this? Corporations in the business of making “adult entertainment.”
Similarly, when the Bush administration started to enforce an existing federal law that prohibited obscenity — against a company that produces hardcore videos depicting rape, murder, and adult women dressed up like little girls — liberals saw the victory for corporate free speech as a good thing. Concerning the clearly legal but distasteful music that makes up “gangsta” rap, one may assume that the same crowd that objects to corporations engaging in political speech has no problem with “music” that degrades women as bitches and “hos.”
So what, exactly, is the liberal upset about corporate free speech? It isn’t corporate free speech that bothers them. It isn’t even corporate political free speech that bothers them, as long as that speech serves a liberal cause.
The great desperate fear is that finally, there might be some balance.