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.
Maybe that’s true. Many folks I know agree with that sentiment, although curiously I have yet to hear them admit that they are so easily manipulated: It’s just everyone else that’s the fool. If so, then democracy is in danger not from too much money, but rather because its core assumption — that people have the intelligence to make decisions about their own governance — is untrue. If that’s the case, perhaps we’d be better off returning to the days of kings, queens, and other autocrats.
Personally, I don’t yet despair for democracy. Granted, the ads are annoying and pervasive, but that doesn’t mean they dictate results. Indeed, in past years, it has been remarkable to watch the degree that people — especially those who think of themselves as ideologically “independent” — agonize over their decisions as an election approaches. They listen to candidates; watch debates; talk to friends, co-workers, and neighbors; and scour news from all sources (which increasingly include blogs, tweets, and postings).
Then too, the power of advertising is oversold. With ad-skipping features readily available, it gets ever harder to reach people with TV ads anyway. But even when people see the ads, they aren’t credulous dupes. Viewers know that just because Pepsi says it’s better than Coke doesn’t mean it really is. And they know as well that just because one super PAC calls a politician a fraud, liar, or crook doesn’t mean that too is true.
Granted, if current polls hold, on Election Day about half of us will be deeply unhappy with the outcome. If I had the money, I might even take out ads labeling those who disagreed with me as idiots. But that wouldn’t really mean, if you get what I’m saying, that they really are.
This column originally appeared on the Boston Sunday Globe's op-ed page on July 8, 2012.