Citizens United and the evolving politics of money in elections

Font Size:

When I think of the influence money has had in U.S. elections, I’m reminded of that wonderful scene in the 1963 motion picture Cleopatra where Egypt, in a Senate vote, officially becomes Rome’s ally under some rather “surprising” circumstances:

Cicero: “After today and never again shall I doubt the extent of Egypt’s wealth.”

Mark Antony: “I don’t like Cicero’s implication; there’s not enough gold in Egypt to buy the honor of a Roman senator.”

Julius Caesar: “More than enough, it seems, to buy his vote.”

Once again, special interest money is playing a pivotal role in November’s midterm elections. This past year’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission has opened the floodgates to extraordinary amounts of corporate and, to a lesser extent, union money being spent on political advertisements — most of it flowing through non-profit organizations with innocuous, if not pleasant sounding names. These organizations tend to disclose neither their officers nor specific contact information. Additionally, due to various tax code provisions, donors to these groups can give anonymously.

The Citizens United ruling states that organizations are entitled to the same free speech rights as individuals. Before the decision, the FEC prohibited corporations from spending money directly on political advertisements for or against a candidate within thirty days of a primary election or sixty days of a general election. But now, these same special interests can advertise for or against these same candidates as much as they want, whenever they want. Riding a powerful nationwide backlash against Obama’s policies, Republicans are poised to make significant legislative gains in the midterm elections. And through various non-profits such as Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie’s Crossroads GPS, they are using the Court’s decision to run ads against targeted Democratic incumbents — mirroring the legitimate anxiety and, in some cases, raw anger the public is expressing about seemingly unlimited federal spending.

But because one political ideology or another expresses the desire — and in fact acts entirely lawfully and ethically — to defeat opponents in elections with overwhelming amounts of money, does that mean that individual freedoms as enumerated in the First Amendment have effectively been subjugated? In this context, what’s intriguing about the Citizens United ruling is that certain arguments were heard twice by the Supreme Court — a great rarity. The reason, according to the Court’s weblog, SCOTUSBlog, was so that the justices could “determine whether the Court should overrule precedential cases upholding restrictions on political spending by corporations.”

For its part, the Obama administration, with not a small amount of hypocrisy, is crying foul because conservative non-profit groups, including Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are legally withholding the names of their donors. But such concerns did not seem to matter nearly as much in 2008, when then-Candidate Obama first went back on his promise to accept public financing of his campaign and then refused to release the names of his campaign’s donors. Indignation, it would seem, knows no particular ideology.

So, with the two major parties and their well-moneyed interests playing Goliath to the average citizen’s David, can freedom of speech be preserved? The First Amendment does not differentiate among individuals, corporations, unions, or any other entity, so on these grounds alone, it would appear the Court’s decision in Citizens United is on a solid constitutional footing. However, is the spirit of the amendment adversely affected by political and financial realities never originally anticipated by the founders? As a traditional, constitutional conservative, and one who has been absolutely appalled by the excessive greed exhibited by Wall Street prior to the recent financial meltdown, I’ve long been convinced that our rights and liberties as a citizenry have been inexorably curtailed by such special interests. Corporations and unions are equally culpable.

Transparency, it would seem, is the great equalizer in preserving these personal rights and liberties. For example, if one were attacked at night by someone wearing a ski mask, the victim would be understandably motivated to obtain the assailant’s identity. In a court of law, a defendant has a constitutional right to confront his or her accuser. The same should pertain to someone being anonymously targeted in advertisements. This concept of transparency is not a partisan position but rather one that views fair play and reasonableness as essential to the proper exercise of democracy. As Americans, we should demand nothing less.

Christopher Hartman is the author of “Advance Man: The Life and Times of Harry Hoagland”; editor of “Learn Earn and Return: My Life as a Computer Pioneer,” a memoir of Harlan Anderson, co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, and contributor to the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.