In a recent article published in The New York Times Magazine entitled “How much has Citizens United changed the Political Game,” Matt Bai, the magazine’s chief political correspondent, attempted to make the case that the Citizens United v FEC decision did not really change much in political contributions in the United States. Below, his arguments are in block format.
Bai explained that the current narrative about the Citizens United decision having created an “exponential leap” in campaign spending and “we are now seeing the corporate takeover of American politics” is flawed. He wrote:
As a matter of political strategy, this is a useful story to tell, appealing to liberals and independent voters who aren’t necessarily enthusiastic about the administration but who are concerned about societal inequality, which is why President Obama has made it a rallying cry almost from the moment the Citizens United ruling was made. But if you’re trying to understand what’s really going on with politics and money, the accepted narrative around Citizens United is, at best, overly simplistic. And in some respects, it’s just plain wrong.
That’s why the President expressed concerns about corporate spending in our elections? What about the fact that many corporations are partly foreign owned? What about ending up with a government even more dominated by corporate interests than it already is? What about the possibility that the essential nature of American democracy could be undermined by allowing huge, transnational corporations to spend their vast wealth shaping public opinion with deceitful propaganda?
Bai explained what the decision accomplished:
…First, the Supreme Court wiped away much of the rigmarole about “express advocacy” and “electioneering.” Now any outside group can use corporate money to make a direct case for who deserves your vote and why, and they can do so right up to Election Day. The second change is that the old 527s have now been made effectively obsolete, replaced by the super PAC. The main difference between a super PAC and a social-welfare group, practically speaking, is that a super PAC has to disclose the identity of its donors, while social-welfare groups generally do not.
The transformation quality is already apparent in the current “do-nothing” Congress where compromise has become a dirty word and the Tea Party extremists express a willingness to default on the U.S. debt. Who does Bai believe funded these extremists’ campaigns? It’s too early to claim that the “essential ways” Citizens United changed the electoral system is transformational or not, but so far we have a House of Representatives that Glenn Beck can be proud of. If that’s not disconcerting, then you’re not paying attention to his reactionary, 19th Century agenda and how well it’s aligned with the Tea Party agenda.
Those who criticize the effect of Citizens United look at these very technical changes and see an obvious causal relationship. The high court says outside groups are allowed to use corporate dollars to expressly support candidates, and suddenly we have this tidal wave of money threatening to overwhelm the airways. One must have led to the other, right?
Well, not necessarily. Legally speaking, zillionaires were no less able to write fat checks four years ago than they are today. And while it is true that corporations can now give money for specific purposes that were prohibited before, it seems they aren’t, or at least not at a level that accounts for anything like the sudden influx of money into the system. According to a brief filed by Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment lawyer, in a Montana case on which the Supreme Court ruled last month, not a single Fortune 100 company contributed to a candidate’s super PAC during this year’s Republican primaries. Of the $96 million or more raised by these super PACs, only about 13 percent came from privately held corporations, and less than 1 percent came from publicly traded corporations.
Bai is making a false claim here. “Zillionaries” were not free to write multi-million dollar checks before Citizens United. As Richard Hasen wrote in Slate, specifically addressing this argument from Bai, “Before the chain of events unleashed by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, if Sheldon Adelson tried to give $100 million to outside
groups to support a presidential candidate, he would have faced a criminal investigation and potential charges. The big 527s from previous elections, including the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Americans Coming Together, faced hefty fines for trying to do illegally what super PACs can now do legally: specifically, setting up a group to take unlimited contributions to influence federal elections.” Furthermore, citing a brief filed by corporatist, Senator McConnell: there can’t be any deflection in that brief, right? Many corporate contributions are simply not disclosed, as Bai will convey, but he turns a blind eye toward the new norm that Citizens United put into place. True, corporations do not appear, from what we know about donations to super PAC s, to be contributing much so far, but the virtually “anything goes” legal environment has made large donations from plutocrats and (foreign owned) corporations the new legal and far more acceptable norm. Besides, what about the old norm that corporations should not be participating in our democratic order? Bai does not seem to care about this principle.
Bai contradicts himself and undermines the McConnell brief when he added:
…The general election has just begun, and big energy and health care companies may still be pouring money into social-welfare groups that don’t have to disclose their donors. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington reported last month, for instance, that Aetna anonymously contributed more than $7 million to two such groups. We may never know precisely how much money is coming from similar companies, which should alarm anyone who cares about the integrity and transparency of government.
Do you contradict yourself in every piece you write, Mr. Bai? And what about people who care about democracy and corporate dominance of the government? Clearly, Bai just doesn’t grasp the import and potential of corporate domination of American elections brought about by the Citizens United case. Bai goes on to note that…
…Kenneth Gross, an election lawyer who represents an array of large corporations, told me that few of his clients have contributed to the social-welfare groups engaged in political activity this year. They know those contributions might become public at some point, and no company that sells a product wants to risk the kind of consumer reaction that engulfed Target in 2010, after it contributed $150,000 to a Minnesota group backing a conservative candidate opposing gay marriage….
Corporate managers/owners “know” contributions to “social-welfare groups” might become public? That’s a dubious claim from a representative of the corporations. Fact is, as Bai pointed out himself, we just don’t know how much corporations are contributing, and the Republican Senators have used the filibuster (again) to keep it that way. Bai contradicts himself again when he notes that…
None of this is to say that Citizens United hasn’t had an impact. Gross and others point out that in the era before Citizens United, while individuals and companies could still contribute huge sums to outside groups, they were to some extent deterred by the confusing web of rules and the liability they might incur for violations. What the new rulings did, as the experts like to put it, was to “lift the cloud of uncertainty” that hung over such expenditures, and the effect of this psychological shift should not be underestimated. It almost certainly accounts for some rise in political money this year, both from individuals and companies.
Even so, the Supreme Court’s ruling really wasn’t the sort of tectonic event that Obama and his allies would have you believe it was. “I’d go so far as to call it a liberal delusion,” Ira Glasser, the former executive director of the A.C.L.U. and a liberal dissenter on Citizens United, told me. Which leads to an obvious question: If Citizens United doesn’t explain this billion-dollar blast of outside money, then what does?
Glasser is naive and corrupt enough to support the idea that corporations should have constitutional rights. Fact is, Citizens United established a new norm for plutocrats and corporate officers to spend unlimited amounts of money trying to buy office for the corporate tool of their choice. Bai’s total neglect of the issue of corporate rights undermines his entire piece. One could go so far as to call him a corporate tool.
Bai continued to claim:
If you’re a Democrat, there’s some good news here. One persistent fear you hear from liberals is that Citizens United altered the balance between the parties in a permanent way — that corporate money will give Republicans a structural advantage that can never be overcome. What’s more likely is that the boom in outside money will prove to be cyclical, with the momentum swinging toward whoever feels shut out and persecuted at the moment. Liberals dominated outside spending in 2004 and 2006. And should Romney become president, they’ll most likely do so again.
So Bai has a crystal ball and believes that it is “more likely” that corporate and plutocratic contributions will go back to the other party that is at the mercy, beck and call of the corporate influence. When Republicans, especially far-right extremists, persecute corporations, we’ll fly to New York and buy Bai another drink. Worse, Bai makes the Citizens United decision a partisan concern, when it’s far more profound than that. Maybe beltway insiders think that Citizens United concerns partisan politics, but this decision created the conditions for a slow-motion coup d’etat, and Bai naively claims that both parties will benefit from it. What about “We the People?” How do we benefit from plutocracy and/or corporatocracy? Bai, again, turns a blind eye to this question.
At the end of his piece, Bai claims that…
What the reform-minded architects of McCain-Feingold inadvertently unleashed, what Citizens United intensified but by no means created, is a world in which a big part of the money in a presidential campaign is spent by political entrepreneurs and strategists who are unanswerable to any institution….
Maybe that makes for a cleaner and more democratic system than the one we had before, in the way the campaign-finance reformers intended. Standing here in 2012, it’s just hard to see how.
So for Bai, the corrupt Court decision that allowed transnational corporations the freedom to use their court granted 1st Amendment right (1976) to influence American elections isn’t the problem with money in elections; a campaign finance law is to blame. Maybe the real tools are the “political correspondents” who don’t understand this corrupt legal history of corporate rights or their domination in the legislatures, the executives and the courts of the United States. They certainly are not helping, and Bai, specifically, is doing the public a grave disservice to the Republic in this piece.