On Tuesday morning, Gov. Steve Bullock (D-Mont.) announced his candidacy for president in the Democratic 2020 presidential primary. Bullock may have a #MeToo scandal brewing — New York Mayor Bill de Blasio “ripped” into him for failing to warn about an aide’s history of sexual harassment before that aide became de Blasio’s chief of staff. Bullock is virtually unknown across the country, and he decided to enter the gates campaigning against free speech in politics.
That’s right — spinning a yarn on the evils of corruption, Bullock condemned free speech in politics in his campaign announcement video. In fact, he made it the center of his campaign.
Democrats like Bullock don’t phrase it this way, of course, but when they condemn “Citizens United,” they’re condemning the ability of everyday Americans to band together and spend money to promote political messages in the public square. Americans should be able to do this anonymously, just like Benjamin Franklin did under the pen name “Silence Dogood.” Contrary to the narrative spun by Bullock and others, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) was a victory for free speech in politics and primary challengers, not corporate interests or corruption.
Bullock begins his video with an image of Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana. The open pit copper mine is a toxic threat to the water in the area, and the Montana governor tried to make it an image of corruption.
“About a hundred years ago, this was the richest hill on earth,” he begins. “The men who owned it were called kings. With their money, they bought politicians, attacked unions, exploited workers, and left us with a toxic reminder of what happens when our democracy is put up for sale.”
“Today we see evidence of a corrupt system all across America,” Bullock adds. “A government that serves campaign money, not the people. After the Citizens United decision, a lot of folks said game over. But as attorney general, I refused to give up the fight.”
His video cut to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow noting that every state in the country had abandoned its corporate spending limits … except then-Attorney General Steve Bullock.
“And when we lost, I found another way,” Bullock says, by becoming governor. “As the Democratic Governor of a state that Trump won by 20 points, I don’t have the luxury of just talking to people who agree with me.” He bragged about passing one of the strongest campaign finance laws in the country.
The video shows Bullock speaking at a rally in his state, saying, “And if we can kick the Koch Brothers out of Montana, we sure as hell could kick them out of every place in the country.”
The governor gives a brief backstory: he was raised by a single mom who knew the Governor’s Mansion because he delivered newspapers there. Now, he raises his children there.
He concludes the video with a call to action. “I believe in an America where very child has a fair shot to do better than their parents. But we all know that that kind of opportunity no longer exists for most people,” he said. “That’s why we need to defeat Donald Trump in 2020, and defeat the corrupt system that lets campaign money drown out the people’s voice, so we can finally make good on the promise of a fair shot for everyone.”
To give everyone a fair shot, we must do more than defeat Donald Trump. We have to defeat the corrupt system that keeps people like him in power, and we need a fighter who's done it before.
— Steve Bullock (@GovernorBullock) May 14, 2019
In other words, Bullock has structured his campaign launch video — and perhaps his entire presidential bid — on one issue, overturning Citizens United and dismantling the horrible “corruption” that allowed Trump to become president and ruin American democracy.
This story quickly falls apart, with just a little digging. After all, anti-Citizens United Democrat Hillary Clinton spent far more money and had far more ads than Trump in the 2016 election. Pro-Clinton independent political groups — often demonized as “dark money” groups because they do not have to report fundraising numbers to the government since they are not connected to campaigns or allowed to coordinate with them — raised $189.5 million, while pro-Trump “dark money” groups raised $59.4 million. Yes, Clinton had more than three times the amount of “dark money” as Trump, and she still lost.
The Clinton campaign raised 2.2 times was much money as Trump’s campaign, pro-Clinton ads outnumbered pro-Trump ads 3 to 1, and the Clinton team ran three times as many ads overall than Trump supporters — especially in the key swing states of Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Iowa.
If corrupt “dark money” and campaign finance determined elections, Clinton should have quashed Trump handily. In fact, Trump would never have been the Republican nominee, anyway. According to Open Secrets, the top super PACs in the 2016 election supported Hillary Clinton (Priorities USA Action raised $176 million and spent $132 million), Jeb Bush (Right to Rise USA raised $122 million and spent $87 million), and Marco Rubio (Conservative Solutions PAC raised $61 million and spent $55 million).
If anything, Trump’s victory in 2016 represents the power of the people against “dark money” and political spending. But that doesn’t mean Democrats like Bullock are right about Citizens United empowering corruption.
Democrats like to complain that thanks to Citizens United, “corporations are people, too.” This is accurate but misleading. According to campaign finance law, any collaborations of people in an organization counts as a “corporation.” This includes unions as well as nonprofits like the Boy Scouts of America or political groups like the NRA and, well, the nonprofit Citizens United.
The 2010 case involved a Citizens United ad for an anti-Clinton movie released in the 2008 Democratic primaries. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) said the ad, released on television in the 90 days before the primary election, constituted a campaign finance violation. In the Supreme Court arguments, Citizens United noted that this rule could ban books released before elections.
When the Supreme Court ruled that “corporations” have free speech in politics and can release books, movies, or ads without that being penalized as campaign finance violations, it enabled everyday citizens to band together to express their opinion anonymously.
This change has benefitted American politics in local, state, and even a few national elections. Money cannot buy a politician votes, but it can bring him or her an exposure that is extremely hard to come by for candidates who challenge established politicians.
Especially in local races and in primaries, ads paid for by campaigns and super PACs are essential for a candidate to get his or her message out. In most races, incumbents enjoy more name recognition, the ability to raise more money (whether through corruption or otherwise), and the advantage of a record on votes or providing services to their constituents.
In order for the people to have a real choice, there needs to be a challengers who can make up sizable disadvantages: being unknown to most voters, being unknown to donors, and the lack of credibility. This is especially true in primary campaigns, where the political party’s operation cannot support challengers like the party does in general elections.
Spending from super PACs, independent groups, and the campaign itself can get challengers in the position to have a real fighting chance against incumbents. Victories like that of Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are noteworthy and in many ways became possible because of Citizens United. Even if you despise Brat or Ocasio-Cortez, they represented the victory of voters over established interests — incumbent leaders in their political parties. This is exactly the kind of representation that Citizens United promotes.
“Dark money” groups like Americans for Prosperity, the National Rifle Association, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the AFL-CIO, and others all support candidates who champion their issues. They provide and essential part of democracy by propping up real competition. Outside groups also promote political messages in films like 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Unplanned, and Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Greatest Serial Killer.
Overturning Citizens United wouldn’t just stop the “Dark money” supporting political candidates — money that allows Americans to express themselves anonymously as Ben Franklin did — it would also restrict movies like these. It would be a huge loss for free speech in politics and for voters to have real options in elections.
Sadly, radical Democrats have tried to undermine free speech in politics by pressuring conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity (AFP) to publicly reveal their list of donors. The Wall Street Journal‘s Kim Strassel explained just how dangerous this is by referencing the case NAACP v. Alabama.
In that case, “Jim Crow” Attorney General John Patterson (D-Ala.) “ginned up a phony case against the NAACP, and said that as a part of his investigation, the NAACP needed to turn over a list of all its members to him. Why did he need those names? Not to send them thank-you notes,” Strassel quipped.
“This was a time of firebombs, of shootings of lynchings,” so it was very important for NAACP donors to remain anonymous. In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court expanded the First Amendment. “They said not only do you have a right to free speech, not only do you have a right to free assembly, but you have the right to exercise those rights anonymously,” Strassel explained. She added that “sometimes you can’t exercise the freedom of assembly and the freedom of speech unless you do so anonymously.”
In 2015, then-Attorney General Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) — now a senator and a presidential candidate — tried to force AFP to release the names of its donors. AFP officials and donors testified about the threats and intimidation they had already received, before forced disclosure.
“Our chief operating officer, my boss, Chris Fink, … testified about the threats to him and his family members. They’re just horrible, and I’ll just relate one typical thing that we showed in that courtroom,” Victor Benson, Jr., Vice President and general counsel at AFP, recalled in 2016. “It was a video game produced by the Left, and the concept of the game is an active shooter goes into AFP headquarters, and you get points for killing AFP personnel.”
Harris wanted the information on AFP donors “to directly harass and intimidate our donors, maybe bring audits against them, maybe deny them permits that they’re seeking — but it goes beyond that. She was also going to leak this stuff to her pals … because they were going to get out their boycotting forces, and show up at people’s businesses, and blockade their doors, and go into people’s homes, destroy their property, and protest all day long, and just make their personal lives miserable.”
In an era when Trump administration officials are yelled out of restaurants and kept up at night, this kind of intimidation is a very real threat.
Steve Bullock and other Democrats need to reconsider their position on free speech in politics. They keep demonizing Citizens United. In the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.