After the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission struck down a host of free speech restrictions, the Washington establishment responded with a conniption fit that has been rendered hilarious after only two years of history.
Incumbent politicians, The New York Times, a crash of tenured law professors, and even President Barack Obama (in a remarkable breach of State of the Union Address decorum) denounced the decision as a "new weapon" for lobbyists, a "major upheaval in First Amendment law," and an undermining of "the influence of average Americans," not to mention "skeptical and even sarcastic."
But as we enter the second year of the 2012 campaign, it's already clear that removing legal restrictions on the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances has done about what you would expect such a deregulation to do: allowed more voices, issues, and ideas into a political marketplace that nobody—except party bosses and newspapers that have lost their monopolies—could legitimately want to restrict.
Here are just five ways Citizens United has opened up the 2012 campaign:
5. More Competitive GOP Presidential Race
Not so long ago—as recently as 2008 in fact—the only non-anointed candidate capable of staying in a primary race over the long haul was Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Hillary Clinton did manage to stay in the primary fight against Barack Obama, but by this point in 2008 most of the Republicans—including this year's front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—were long gone.
That would almost certainly have been the case this year for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, had the Supreme Court voted to uphold campaign speech and finance restrictions in 2010. It's an open question how much the nation's political consciousness is being raised by having Santorum push for pornography bans and Gingrich denounce hedge fund managers for expropriating the surplus labor value of the proletariat. But having both men in the race has forced Romney to defend his positions and explain the many inconsistencies in his record.
4. Freeing Interest Groups from Party Dependency
Imagine a world where union bosses were no longer controlled by the Democrats.
Where even Occupy Wall Street could form its own Super PAC.
As either utopian or dystopian visions go, that one may be pretty mild, but it's the world we live in right now, and it's a marginal improvement on the top-down campaigning opponents of Citizens United seem to prefer.
Citizens United, by underscoring a right to pool resources for political expression, has made it easier for politically engaged Americans to influence the political process. Single-issue activists, mad-as-hell millionaires, business and labor groups, cats and dogs all have more power now to make their voices heard in politics, without having to seek government approval or coordinate with the major parties.
3. Guaranteed Big Laffs
Politics is to comedy as the surface of the moon is to gardening.
But while the polling place will never be anybody's first choice for d'jever-notice yuks, we can at least expect to enjoy the occasional campaign commercial that is intentionally or unintentionally entertaining.
In this respect, 2012 has so far not really lived up to its apocalyptic reputation, though it has provided a few memorably weird moments.
These include Ron Paul's uncharacteristically butch encapsulation of Americans' disenchantment with entrenched politics and craven politicians:
U.S. congressional candidate Roger Williams' all-ass campaign commercial can't be called "funny" in the classical sense, but it's the most compelling material for political fur fetishists since Carly Fiorina's (probably never-to-be-topped) Demon Sheep spot:
And Santorum's "Rombo" campaign ad raises a question for historians: If he makes it to the White House, will Santorum have himself arrested for threatening to assassinate the president?
2. Good Enough for the President!
"Last week," President Obama told the assembled houses of Congress right after Citizens United came down, "the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people."
Yet last month Obama raised $2 million through his own Super PAC. And this week Obama and the congressional Democrats pooled their resources to form a Super-Duper PAC that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will literally have more money than God.
Obama advisor David Plouffe blames the Republicans and libertarian billionaires for this unfortunate necessity—and The New York Times has been happy to take Plouffe at his word. But folks of a certain age, who remember candidate Obama's similar about-face on matching-funds spending limits in 2008, know that he is just doing what comes naturally.
And he's right to do so. The president is facing a well-earned loss of confidence, and even though the Republicans have declined to field a strong candidate against him, Obama needs to spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising. Without Citizens United, that would not be the case. Obama would be coasting even more easily toward re-election.
1. Shaking Up Local Races
In North Carolina's 13th Congressional District a Super PAC is helping challenger George Holding compete with front-runner Paul Coble. In the Virginia Senate race, Democrat Tim Kaine has managed to stay within shouting distance of Republican front-runner George Allen. Even Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Alabama), who has been making law since the time of Moses, is facing an unprecedented challenge.
In Colorado, liberal groups have helped to transform the state legislature. In Wisconsin, conservative groups are helping Gov. Scott Walker combat a recall attempt engineered by transnational labor. There's even a Super PAC dedicated to throwing out incumbents.
From union thugs to shotgun-toting grannies to eccentric bazillionaires to self-enchanted soccer dads who just want to warn the world about Joseph Kony, all Americans have important new tools to get their respective messages out. That would have happened with or without the Supreme Court's help. But Citizens United applies people power to the calcified sphere of politics. The results so far are as terrifying to incumbents as they are delightful to the rest of us.