Friday, January 21, 2011

The One Year Anniversary of a Shameful Ruling

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Citizens United v. FEC ruling, in which the conservative judicial activists of the Supreme Court decided to sweep away decades of settled law and restrictions on corporate contributions to political campaigns instead of just issuing a ruling limited to facts of the case.

I regret that at the time, caught as I was in the frenzy that followed the Citizens United decision, I was a bit too quick to announce that the Supreme Court had spelled the death of democracy with its ruling. A few days later, Ed Brayton wrote the following on his blog, Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

I know a lot of liberals are very upset by yesterday's Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v FEC, but frankly I think it's much ado about little. The standard reaction seems to be: "Oh my god, corporations can now spend tons of money to influence the outcome of elections." But I've got news for you: They already do that. They always have. And the campaign finance laws did not prevent it.

And also this:

The fact is that the campaign finance law that the court struck down was never really intended to reduce corporate influence over elections in the first place. It was designed to give the illusion of reducing corporate influence over elections.

In a world where the haves have many hundred times as much as the have-nots do, and where the profits of corporations are expressed in billions of dollars, Brayton is absolutely on point when he says that "campaign finance laws were designed to give the illusion of reducing corporate influence over elections." Who are we kidding?

Nevertheless, the ruling did two notable things: Instantly, it destroyed the notion that judicial activism is a prerogative of the left, which is a well-known talking point of the right. Also, as I wrote at the time on this blog,

[Citizens United] further reinforces the opinion that money is a natural means of securing free speech, and that corporations are entitled to the same free speech protections in the political arena as individuals do without being exposed to the same liabilities that are attached to physical persons. Corporations cannot be put to death, they cannot be imprisoned, they do not have post bail, and so forth. This creates a class of supercitizens that the Founding Fathers would not conceivably have endorsed. In fact, all evidence points to the contrary: Founding Fathers feared the rise of corporation against the interest of the nascent Union. How supposed originalists like Scalia and Thomas failed to see this is a testament not to their dedication to preserving the original intent of the Constitution but to the degree of their subservience to the particular interests they represent.

Still, I have to agree not only with Brayton's assessment, but with what Chris Hedges wrote on Truthdig, when he called democracy in America "a useful fiction". In that article, Hedges said
The coup is over. We lost. The ruling is one more judicial effort to streamline mechanisms for corporate control. It exposes the myth of a functioning democracy and the triumph of corporate power. But it does not significantly alter the political landscape. The corporate state is firmly cemented in place.

I recommend that you read Hedges's article in its entirety, as it contains a clear insight of how American democracy has been deprived of any substance.

Whereas campaign finance laws certainly contributed to the death of democracy, what really did democracy in is the advent of media conglomeration, as well as the repeal of the fairness doctrine under President Reagan. Though in different guises, many have expressed the concept that, to function properly, democracy requires an informed electorate. A correctly informed electorate, I would say. How well-informed can our voters be when there are "news" organizations like Fox News, the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, to name a few, and when the airwaves are filled with the incoherent, hateful, and lie-filled rants of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Sarah Palin's, and many others (including the occasional liberal)?
In retrospect, I have to admit that news of the death of democracy because of Citizens United were greatly exaggerated: How many times can you kill a corpse?

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