Thursday, November 15, 2012

LIBERAL PARANOIA AND THE CITIZENS UNITED DECISION: 10 Myths My Fellow Liberals Believe about Election Spending

Despite the paranoia of my fellow liberals, the sky is not falling because of the Citizens United decision.
For two years now, I have been arguing with my fellow liberals about the Supreme Court’s well-known (shall I say notorious?) 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which permitted corporations, unions, and other organizations to spend unlimited amounts of money on election advocacy. I support the Supreme Court’s decision. Yes, you read that right. I am a liberal (some would call me a flaming liberal), and I support the Supreme Court’s decision in what I shall hereafter call, for brevity’s sake, simply Citizens United.

Let me put it as baldly as I can: I believe casino magnate Sheldon Adelson should be permitted to give $53 million of his own money or his company’s money (as he did) to whatever PACs or other organizations he wants in order to help get Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney or anyone else elected. I believe the oil-rich Koch brothers should be able to give many millions of their companies’ dollars (as they did) to whatever organizations they want that are dedicated to defeating Democratic candidates. I believe the coal companies and banks should be able to spend whatever they want (as they did) to produce ads that support candidates they like and oppose candidates they don’t like.

My reasoning is simple: Unfettered political speech is important. In a democracy, it is indispensable.  Any restrictions on the ability of an individual or a corporation or a union or any other entity to express its political opinions is a restriction on political speech. Restricting political speech is wrong, per se, in a democracy.

Sheldon Adelson, conservative
George Soros, liberal
In this I am simply being consistent: When I support the right of the conservative Sheldon Adelson to support his candidates as he wishes, I am also protecting the right of the liberal George Soros to do the same. And when I support the right of Exxon to make a political ad, I am also protecting the right of the Sierra Club to do the same. If I were to deny the right of those on one side of the political spectrum, I would of necessity deny that same right to those on the other. To do that would be to strangle the voice out of our democracy.

I am not the only liberal who believes the Citizens United decision was correct. So does the ACLU, the most important defender of civil liberties in the country, and an organization vilified in some quarters as too liberal. The AFL-CIO, no friend of conservative causes, also submitted a brief to the Supreme Court that supported its final decision in the case. Michael Kinsley is just one liberal columnist to come out in support of the decision. I agree with the ACLU, the AFL-CIO, and Kinsley: Citizens United was properly decided. Post-Citizens United, democracy is still safe and as thriving as ever.

We have just finished the first presidential election since Citizens United was decided. I now ask my liberal friends: What harm did the Citizens United decision cause in this election? The answer is clear: No harm whatsoever.

To feel and exhibit fear when no fear is justified is a sign of paranoia. When it comes to Citizens United, many of my fellow liberals have simply been paranoid, imagining the sky to be falling when it is still holding up the sun just fine.

I do understand the reasons many of my fellow liberals opposed the Citizens United decision. Those reasons were myths to begin with, and the recent election has proven them to be myths. Here are some of the myths that too many of my fellow liberals believe about the Citizens United decision:

Romney (above) and Obama (below) ended up spending about the same amount of money in the campaign.
Myth #1: Citizen United will let rich people and corporations drown out the voices of ordinary people. This is simply untrue, as the recent presidential election showed. President Obama and Mitt Romney each raised about $1 billion to fund their campaigns (including both direct contributions and contributions to PACs and other organizations that supported them).  President Obama’s campaign raised twice as much from those giving under $200 as Romney’s raised from those giving more than $2,000. In other words, Obama’s money came from “ordinary people”; Romney’s came from richer people; Obama’s “ordinary people” gave more to the campaign directly than Romney’s rich people. The President’s campaign took in far more than Romney’s; Romney’s PACs took in far more than the President’s; in the end, the money given to advocate for each candidate balanced out almost perfectly evenly at about $1 billion. And in the end, both campaigns saturated the airwaves with their ads. The voices of both candidates came through loud and clear. Conclusion: The rich did not drown out us ordinary folk in either dollars or decibels.

Myth #2: Citizens United will let rich people and corporations give all they want to candidates’ campaigns, making candidates obliged to them. The rich, in effect, get to bribe the candidates. This claim, too, is untrue, and it is probably the most common misconception among those who oppose the Citizens United decision. Before Citizen United, there were strict regulations on how much an individual may give directly to a candidate’s campaign. After Citizen’s United, those regulations remain exactly the same. Today, an individual may give no more than $2,500 directly to a campaign. Corporations may give nothing directly to a campaign. (Few liberals I’ve argued with even know that.) Unions may give nothing directly to a campaign. There are similar limits on what individuals and organizations can give to state or national party committees. Although I generally believe in the freedom of individuals or groups to spend their money to express their political opinions, I support these limits on direct contributions to candidates and their campaigns. Why? Because giving directly to a candidate or his campaign can be tantamount to bribery. But if I create my own ad, with my own (or my corporation’s or my union’s) money, the candidate receives no direct wealth. That is not a bribe. It is simply my (or my organization’s) expression of my political opinion. Citizens United did not let anyone give more money to candidates. It simply let people create their own political ads, commercials, books, movies or whatever. (For those who didn’t follow the case closely, it involved a movie made by a group called Citizens United. The movie vilified Hillary Clinton. The decision  allowed the movie to be shown.)

Myth #3: Citizens United will give Republicans, the party of the rich, an advantage in elections. This year’s election certainly gives the lie to that myth, doesn’t it? The presidential candidate supported by rich Republicans like Adelson, the Kochs, Donald Trump, et al., lost. Nearly all the Senate candidates supported by those rich Republicans lost. (Adelson and his wife spent $42 million to support eight Republican Senate candidates; they all lost.) Most Republican representatives already in the House won, but so did most Democratic incumbents; the Dems actually picked up seats in both the House and the Senate. The gerrymandering done by the Republicans in the states after 2010 had far more to do with Republican victories in the House than Citizens United. Nothing in Citizens United would have affected that gerrymandering.

If Citizens United had been decided otherwise, both Stephen Colbert (top)
and Jon Stewart (below) might have had to cancel their shows as the election approached.

Myth #4: Citizens United was about giving corporations more power and treating them like actual people. At no point in its decision did the Supreme Court say that corporations were people. It simply said that a corporation, like any other group of people, had the same free-speech rights as flesh-and-blood individuals or groups. The decision did not recognize that only corporations like General Electric and the oil companies have free-speech rights. It also recognized that nonprofit groups like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Sierra Club, and, yes, Citizens United have such rights. And that unions like the AFL-CIO have such rights.  And that you and I, if we wish to pool our money into a PAC to support a candidate, have such rights. If Citizens United had been decided the other way, environmental groups, book publishers, newspaper publishers, magazine publishers, tv shows (like Jon Stewart’s and Steven Colbert’s), and movie makers could have been prevented from publishing or airing anything that might be construed as politician advocacy in the 60 days before an election. That’s right: books, movies, and newspapers with political advocacy content could have been banned; Comedy Central, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert could well have found themselves prosecuted for promoting certain candidates; groups like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Nature Conservancy, and Move On could have been prohibited from airing ads that might be construed as supporting one candidate over another. Most of Michael Moore’s movies would have had to be taken off the screen. MSNBC and Fox News (both parts of corporations and both with clear advocacy content) would, to be consistent, have to go black. Does anyone believe that such censorship would have been good for democracy? Citizens United was not about corporations alone. It was about every group or organization in the country. It was also about allowing you and me to pool our money to support our candidate.

Myth #5: Citizens United encourages the propagation of lies, especially through a vastly greater number of tv and radio ads, and those lies can influence the outcome of an election. First, it is historically obvious that lies have been part of American politics since Jefferson (a traitor!) ran against Adams (a dictator!). Citizens United did nothing to change that, nor will any other law or court ruling. Second, while it is true that there has been increased spending on tv and radio advertising—and many more ads— since the Citizens United decision was made, there is no evidence that those ads are any more or less true than advertising in previous elections. (Just ask John Kerry about the swift-boat ads in 2004. There were lies before; there are lies now—no change.) Third, there is every evidence that the increase in tv and radio advertising was actually counter-productive for the campaigns; they spent money on ads for which they got little in return. These days especially, political tv ads have minimal effect. Thanks to easily available technologies, people can simply mute or fast-forward past political ads—and all the evidence from this election suggests that that’s exactly what they did. In addition, more and more people are getting their political information from MSNBC, Fox News, their Facebook friends—and even more from Jon Stewart!—than from bought ads. It is almost certain that Obama won the election by spending, not more on advertising than Romney, but more on his ground game. According to the Washington Post, Obama spent almost twice as much ($95 million) on payroll as Romney ($48 million). In other words, Obama put much of his money into people; Romney and his PACs put it into ads and mailings and robo-calls. The people-based campaign won. Citizens United could not prevent that. The world is fast doing an end-run around television advertising.

Myth #6: Citizens United undermines the “one person, one vote” rule of democracy. I have heard this claim from many liberals, but it makes no sense. For all the $53 million he and his wife spent on the campaign, Sheldon Adelson still got only one vote when he went to the polls—the same as you and I. Unless he was paying voters to vote for his candidates (which is still illegal), he had no more voting power than you or I did.
You don't need a conscience to participate in politics.

Myth #7: Corporations have no “conscience,” as real people do, so they should not be allowed to influence elections. Well, it’s true that corporations don’t have a conscience, as that term is commonly meant, but that fact is utterly irrelevant to this discussion. (Fairness note: Unions also have no conscience.) Corporations like Exxon and organizations like Planned Parenthood certainly have a political stake in elections. Should they not be permitted to advocate for those who will protect their stake, just as you and I, as individuals, do? Besides, since when does the state of a person’s conscience determine whether that person should be allowed to vote? Who would argue that everyone who has ever voted has possessed a proper Jiminy Cricket conscience? Votes have been cast by thousands who have gone on to commit conscienceless crimes like embezzlement, robbery, official malfeasance, even murder. No one should be left out of the political discourse because we don’t like the state of (or nonexistence of) his conscience.

Myth #8: Corporations use the investments of their stockholders, and unions the dues of their members, to advocate for politicians whom not all of those stockholders and members support. Therefore, corporations and unions should not be allowed to give money to political causes. Again, the first sentence may be true, but the second does not logically follow. First, corporations presumably spend political money to support their own fiscal interests; this is also in the fiscal interests of their shareholders, so shareholders are not materially harmed by such spending. Second, shareholders can always sell their interest in a corporation if they do not like how that corporation invests its money—whether that investment is in a political cause or in a certain kind of research and development; shareholders are not slaves of the corporation—they are free to leave it. Third, shareholders get a vote; the corporation does not; this gives shareholders far more political power than the corporation itself. Finally, corporations are historically, in actual practice, rather balanced in their political spending. Most (admittedly not all) tend to give fairly equal support to candidates of both parties. Why? Because, as a matter of public relations, they do not want to alienate about 50% of their customers and employees by supporting one candidate over another.

Myth #9: Political positions with more money behind them will be more likely to be accepted by the public than those with less money behind them.  Therefore, the money spent on elections should be limited. Again, the first statement may be true. But, again, it does not lead to the second statement and is in fact irrelevant to it. It is possible (we don’t know for sure) that the 2012 California ballot proposition calling for food labeling to include information about genetically-modified content was defeated because Monsanto and other big sellers of genetically-modified food spent millions to defeat it. But that wasn’t an election. It was a referendum on a public policy. Citizens United dealt only with elections and is irrelevant to such referendum votes. Even so, one must ask: Would we deny Monsanto the right to spend all it wanted to combat a public policy that endangered its very business? If so, would we equally deny the right of an environmental nonprofit like the Sierra Club to spend all it could to support the policy? For if we deny one the right, we must likewise deny the other.

Myth #10: Citizens United lets rich people spend all they want to influence elections. I end with this, probably the second most common misconception about the Citizens United decision. Yes, it is true: a billionaire like Sheldon Adelson (a conservative) or George Soros (a liberal) can spend as much as he wants—millions and millions—to create political ads or mailers or movies or robo-calls or whatever to support his favorite candidates, and that doesn’t seem fair, since I can’t spend much at all to do that. But this is also true: the Citizens United decision had nothing to do with their ability to spend all they want. They could spend all they wanted before Citizens United; they can spend all they want now. The rich have been allowed to spend all they wanted to support their candidates from the founding of the country. So can you and I. Again, we are limited in what we give directly to candidates or their campaigns—see the facts under Myth #2—but we can spend all we want on our own devices, and we always could. Citizens United did not change that a whit. Every court in every era has protected the right of Americans, as individuals, to do all they can to support their candidates. That is considered a fundamental right in our democracy. And I’m glad it is.
John Milton

Let me end with a quote from the poet John Milton:

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? 

(from “Areopagitica” a 1644 essay opposing political censorship)

We may hate all the ads and all the lies and misrepresentations some of them contain. We may think that because of Citizens United, there are more of those ads, and thus more lies, more misrepresentations. History tells us that that’s not true. But even if it were, I believe, like Milton, that, in part thanks to Citizens United, Truth also gets its place “in the field.” Truth still can be heard, loudly, in our elections. And as long as that is the case, if we trust in democracy, and if we trust in the good judgment of our fellow citizens, then, like Milton, we can trust that, as in the recent election, Falsehood shall not win. If we do not have that trust, then democracy was lost long before Citizens United.


Anyone wishing to explore the arguments about this subject further might wish to read what’s at the following links, two of which argue one side of the question, two the other. The Washington Post link lays out the dollar spending in the 2012 election:


  1. Thanks for this intelligent break-down of the ruling Ed. I think you've swayed my opinion. I still hate to see all the money being spent on elections... but I think your analysis is right on the money (bad pun though that may be).

  2. Thanks, Richard. You're always intelligent and open-minded in your responses. As I've said elsewhere, I don't expect everyone to agree with my position. There are good reasons many other countries have strict election-finance laws. But there is always a cost-benefit analysis that needs to be done: what do we gain by such laws, and what do we lose? I just want to be sure that my liberal friends really understand the decision before they object to it.

  3. Hi Ed! Very interesting! I'll see your slippery slope with an overgeneralization: SOME Liberals...