â€œThere is something supremely cynical about the notion among Republican conservatives,â€ wrote The New York Times on Sunday, â€œthat they could use their ability to make unlimited contributions to â€˜super PACsâ€™ 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.â€
Gosh, wherever could conservative Republicans have gotten such an idea?
Maybe from The Times itself.
New Yorkâ€™s paper of record was writing about the colossal failure of deep-pocket donors to swing any weight in last weekâ€™s election: â€œAmerican 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.â€ It was indeed, as the editorial noted, â€œA Landslide Loss for Big Money.â€
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 â€œVote for X,â€ or a sign in Lafayette Park that said the same thing? The governmentâ€™s lawyer, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart said yes: The government â€œcould prohibitâ€ such a book, movie, or sign. The Supreme Court said: No, it cannot.
Cue the hysterics.
The ruling, fumed President Obama, â€œstrikes at democracy itself.â€ Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaineâ€"Virginiaâ€™s former governorâ€"termed it â€œa major victory for oil companies, banks, health insurance companies and other special interests.â€ Others called the ruling a â€œconstitutional Frankenstein moment,â€ a â€œcorporate takeover,â€ â€œradical,â€ â€œabsurd,â€ and â€œterrifying.â€ On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann declared the ruling worse than the 19th-century Dred Scott decision upholding slavery. It was, he intoned, a â€œSupreme-Court-sanctioned murder of . . . democracy.â€ A writer for the Huffington Post declared, â€œWe are all royally, hopelessly [expletived] for the rest of recorded time.â€
And then there was The Times, which insisted the Court had â€œpaved 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.â€ 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 â€œoutside groupsâ€ 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 Obamaâ€™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 speechâ€"perhaps not â€œfor the rest of recorded time,â€ 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 Warrenâ€™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 donorsâ€™ interests? No? Didnâ€™t think so. Likewise, The New York Times does not object to the huge sums spent on electioneering communications by big corporations such asâ€"oh, The New York Times. (See e.g. â€œBarack Obama for Re-Election,â€ editorial endorsement, Oct. 27.) At bottom, it isnâ€™t political spending per se that many find so troubling. Just other peopleâ€™s political spending.