The Unions Could Have Won the Recall If the Other Side Hadn't Talked So Much


The Washington Post's Greg Sargent blames the failure to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 decision in which the Supreme Court lifted restrictions on independent spending in election campaigns. Sargent calls yesterday's election results "a major wake-up call for the left, Democrats, and unions about the true nature of the new, post-Citizens United political landscape." Citizens United, you see, "empowered opponents of organized labor," allowing "outside groups" to spend heavily on ads supporting Walker. (Although the case dealt with federal restrictions, its First Amendment logic forced states to loosen their rules as well.) Sargent quotes an American Federation of Teachers official, who says, "It's pretty clear that the voices of ordinary citizens are at permanent risk of being drowned out by uninhibited corporate spending."

One crucial fact that goes unmentioned in the 488-word post: Citizens United not only "empowered opponents of organized labor"; it empowered organized labor, overturning longstanding restrictions on political speech by unions. And as I noted in the December 2010 issue of Reason, unions quickly took advantage of their new freedom:

As Mother Jones reporter Suzy Khimm pointed out in June, unions were the first organizations to take advantage of Citizens United, running express advocacy ads during primary campaigns in Arkansas and Pennsylvania. In a listing of the biggest independent spenders compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics in September, unions were three of the top five; the other two were the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

Furthermore, Citizens United ungagged all sorts of corporations—not just big businesses but nonprofit advocacy groups of every interest and ideology. Arguing that greater freedom of speech is bad because your side lost an election is the rankest partisanship.