Politics

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.

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“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 Kaineâ€"Virginia’s former governorâ€"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 speechâ€"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 asâ€"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.