Reports of Democracy's Death Greatly Exaggerated

Efforts to keep “outside groups” from speaking are equally efforts to keep voters from hearing what they have to say.

“There is something supremely cynical about the notion among Republican conservatives,” wrote The New York Times on Sunday, “that they could use their ability to make unlimited contributions to ‘super PACs’ and shadowy social-welfare groups to buy an election. It views voters as a flock of sheep, easily hypnotized by misleading ads, willing to believe whatever wealthy industrialists tell them about taxes, jobs and health care.”

Gosh, wherever could conservative Republicans have gotten such an idea?

Maybe from The Times itself.

New York’s paper of record was writing about the colossal failure of deep-pocket donors to swing any weight in last week’s election: “American Crossroads, the super PAC founded by Karl Rove, spent $104 million in the general election, but none of its candidates won. The United States Chamber of Commerce spent $24 million backing Republicans in 15 Senate races; only two of them won. Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul, spent $53 million on nine Republican candidates, eight of whom lost.” It was indeed, as the editorial noted, “A Landslide Loss for Big Money.”

This certainly is not the outcome the newspaper foresaw two years ago, when the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Citizens United.

The case that prompted that ruling was a simple First Amendment matter: Could the government ban the distribution of a movie advocating the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the crucial days leading up to an election, if the movie were paid for by a corporation? Could it, for that matter, ban a similarly funded book that said “Vote for X,” or a sign in Lafayette Park that said the same thing? The government’s lawyer, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart said yes: The government “could prohibit” such a book, movie, or sign. The Supreme Court said: No, it cannot.

Cue the hysterics.

The ruling, fumed President Obama, “strikes at democracy itself.” Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine—Virginia’s former governor—termed it “a major victory for oil companies, banks, health insurance companies and other special interests.” Others called the ruling a “constitutional Frankenstein moment,” a “corporate takeover,” “radical,” “absurd,” and “terrifying.” On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann declared the ruling worse than the 19th-century Dred Scott decision upholding slavery. It was, he intoned, a “Supreme-Court-sanctioned murder of . . . democracy.” A writer for the Huffington Post declared, “We are all royally, hopelessly [expletived] for the rest of recorded time.”

And then there was The Times, which insisted the Court had “paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections.... Congress must act immediately to limit the damage of this radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy.” Other liberals, from John Kerry and Ralph Nader to Nancy Pelosi and the Occupy movement, agreed the Bill of Rights needed to be rolled back to stem the terrible flood of political speech.

The premise underlying all of that wailing was the very same notion The Times now accuses conservative politicos of harboring: that voters are sheep, easily hypnotized by slick advertising. But as others have pointed out, this line of reasoning is not an indictment of campaign financing alone. It is an indictment of democracy itself. Efforts to keep “outside groups” from speaking during an election are equally efforts to keep the voters from hearing what they have to say, and being persuaded. After all, if voters are smart enough to see through the slick ads, then no harm is done. But if the voters are such gullible morons that they will believe anything Karl Rove tells them, then what does democracy have to recommend it? Precious little.

President Obama’s re-election and the defeat of so many conservative candidates backed by big-money groups seems to have redeemed democracy in the eyes of those who fear free speech—perhaps not “for the rest of recorded time,” but at least for now. Yet they remain concerned politicians will be bought. Or rather, some politicians.

Quick show of hands from those who cheered Elizabeth Warren’s victory in Massachusetts: Do you expect the $39 million she collected in contributions, or the $2 million spent on her behalf by a Democratic super-PAC, will turn her into a shill for donors’ interests? No? Didn’t think so. Likewise, The New York Times does not object to the huge sums spent on electioneering communications by big corporations such as—oh, The New York Times. (See e.g. “Barack Obama for Re-Election,” editorial endorsement, Oct. 27.) At bottom, it isn’t political spending per se that many find so troubling. Just other people’s political spending.

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  • ||

    "It views voters as a flock of sheep, easily hypnotized by misleading ads, willing to believe whatever wealthy industrialists tell them about taxes, jobs and health care.”

    The plebeians are always alternating between genius and idiocy, depending on whether or not they agree with the people in the NYT building. I can't figure out whether I'm supposed to be thrilled or horrified living in a democracy.

    If the masses are mostly stupid, why do politicians keep clapping like seals with glee when they win elections? I wouldn't claim bragging rights to being endorsed by morons.

  • Almanian_||

    I don't clap about being represented BY morons, so maybe that evens things out.

  • $park¥||

    Our elected officials are the best and brightest, Almanian. Best. And. Brightest.

  • Romulus Augustus||

    And every one of them a Top.Man. If you don't believe me, just ask them yourself. Hahahaha.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Our elected officials are the best and brightest.

    What does that say about the American people?

  • RickC||

    Lately, I just keep thinking, "Bastiat, Bastiat, Bastiat" during almost every political discussion. Can't get him and his "The Law" out of my head.

  • Rhino||

    me too. I think if people saw what our government is doing from that perspective, there would be a greater push for limited govt. how much $ do you think would be given in campaign contributions if it weren't see as an investment in legalized plunder?

  • sarcasmic||

    I don't think most people care. They just want their free shit.

  • Rhino||

    Democrats are just pissed off because Citizens United allows Corporations and Republican supporters to actually compete with Unions that get their money to fund campaigns by force and spend much more than is officially reported.

  • RickC||

    Don't forget their other propaganda arms, the NYTs, NBC, ABC, CBS, Hollywood, etc. Oh, right! They're corporations too! Cognative dissonance, we know ye not.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    How will the rubes know whom to vote for if the establishmentarian gatekeepers lose their monopoly on concern trolling?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    They just want their free shit.

    And they are utterly certain the Ascended One just pulls that free shit out of a magic hat. Loaves and fishes are penny ante sideshow tricks.

  • sarcasmic||

    free shit out of a magic hat

    That would require caring. They don't give a thought as to where it comes from.

    They just want their free shit.

    They wan it!

    They waaaaaaaaaaan it!

  • The_Choctaw||

    "It views voters as a flock of sheep, easily hypnotized by misleading ads, willing to believe whatever wealthy industrialists tell them about taxes, jobs and health care.” if they're not rich people, but will vote for the interests of rich people, they are obviously at some level susceptible to bullshit.

    Maybe the fact that the Dems had their own superpacs pushing back tempered it somewhat. Maybe the election wouldn't have been as close if the money-hoses were turned off. It's not as simple as "Well, the left won so of course Citizen's United was a great idea and had no negative effects". Voters were fucking buried under a mountain of manipulative slick crap this election season, crowding out reasoned, calm political discourse in favor of colorful graphics and scary voiceovers. That kind of sucks.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Yeah, I remember back when political ads were all about reasoned, calm discourse instead of mudslinging bullshit.

  • The_Choctaw||

    The fact that you can only conceive of society-wide political discourse as 30 second political commercials instead of human beings actually talking with each other shows how bad things have gotten.

  • ||

    I don't like to _think_ good about my political leaders. I like to _feel_ good about them. When either Obama or Romney told me a story when they sat down and talked to a grandma, or a handyman, I gave each a few extra awesome points, and the one with the most points earned my vote. Because, they talk to normal people. They understand normal people. They care.

    Of course, I have more in common with a civilian killed in a drone strike than I do with either Romney or Obama, but I'm sure they hold normal people like me in their minds constantly. Otherwise, why would they talk to so many?

    I just wish more voters made rational decisions like this.

  • Redmanfms||

    "society-wide political discourse"

    Yeah buddy, I'm pretty sure ol' Team BLUE (you know, your guys) killed that little fantasy when they started accusing everybody who was not Team BLUE of being racist.

    Kind of hard to have "political discourse" with one side constantly screeching about how evil, racist, child-hating, greedy, and genocidal the other side is.

  • ||

    "Voters were fucking buried under a mountain of manipulative slick crap this election season, crowding out reasoned, calm political discourse in favor of colorful graphics and scary voiceovers. That kind of sucks."

    According to the NYT, you're being too cynical. Apparently, Citizen's United is a disaster for democracy, right up until your endorsed candidate wins, in which case, you're a silly cynic for thinking it puts even the slightest tarnish on an otherwise flawless, rational execution and victory by the American people.

    Stick with the story. You pull the "OMG Citizen's United!" next time Democrats lose. Otherwise, you're pulling the wind out of the victory.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "The premise underlying all of that wailing was the very same notion The Times now accuses conservative politicos of harboring: that voters are sheep, easily hypnotized by slick advertising."

    But when the Times makes their argument, it's because they love The People, while when Conservatives hide their belief in the same argument, it's because they want to throw The People off a cliff.

  • Free Society||

    "Reports of Democracy's Death Greatly Exaggerated"

    Well, damn.

  • joey89924||

    Can't get him and his "The Law" out of my head.
    www.hqew.net

  • Joe Esty||

    What the hell is so great about tyranny of the majority, er democracy? Has no one read Hans Hoppe's Democracy: the God that failed?

  • PatrickHenry||

    God help us if Mob Rule (Democracy) won. We are not a democracy, we are a Republic. For good reason. Unfortunately the people on the take have become more numerous that the people who produce and they are being helped along by some really corrupt politicians. This all began with the drunken sot, Ted Kennedy.

  • Free Society||

    This all began with Ted Kennedy? Tell me that's some sort of sick, tasteless joke.

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