STEVENS POINT – A few days after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Ed Garvey and I met for a beer at an Irish pub in Madison.
Garvey is one of the funniest people I know, but he wasn’t in a joking mood that spring day, and I wasn’t much for laughing. We might as well have been at a wake — a wake for the American political system as we knew it.
We pretty much predicted the outcome of last week’s election when we met that day. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that boatloads of money poured into elections make a huge difference. After last week’s results, Democrats were bemoaning the absence of foot soldiers in this election. Maybe those foot soldiers just sat it out because they knew they were up against artillery shells lobbed from invisible batteries.
Few so-called analysts bothered to mention this sea change as they assessed last week’s election. Oh, people like Ralph Nader and Amy Goodman are pointing out the obvious, but they are voices in the wilderness, and the message hasn’t sunk in with the masses — the message being, we’re sunk. Citizens United opened political campaigns to unlimited contributions from corporations and other entities that can remain anonymous in the exercise of the free speech accorded to individuals. Never mind that my piddling $50 or $100 donation to the candidate of my choice must be fully disclosed. Yes, unions were given the same right as corporations, but unions are made up of regular people who can’t begin to match the money that large corporations have to toss around.
Flash forward to the midterm elections. House and Senate advertising were up 20 percent and 79 percent, respectively. This massive influx of money combined with a restive, frightened and easily manipulated public to create a perfect storm. Most analysts didn’t bother to follow the money, instead focusing on old-school explanations for what happened. In the old-school understanding of American politics, our system is set up to act like a pendulum. When things move too far in one direction, the pendulum swings the other way. Citizens United changed all that. The pendulum is broken.
The dissenting opinion to Citizens United by Justice John Paul Stevens held that the court’s ruling “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.”
Stevens went on to write: “At bottom, the court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
Imagine that last week’s elections were like a puppet show down at the local library. The puppets were the politicians dancing about on the stage. Holding the strings and providing the voices, in the form of talking points, were the shady groups supported by secret money.
At least Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin climate-change denier elected U.S. senator, did it the old-fashioned way: He bought the office with his own money, even though he stayed close to the script provided by the outsiders. But there was more than a touch of irony in the fact that he defeated Russ Feingold, who together with John McCain fashioned a campaign finance law intended to tamp down the influence of secret money on elections. Staying true to form, Feingold took no outside money and stopped even his own party from running commercials on his behalf. And he went down, just as Garvey and I predicted in that pub last spring.
Maybe Feingold in a new life will lead a national effort to overturn Citizens United. Maybe McCain will have the guts to join him. With the legislatures of the land controlled by the beneficiaries of the massive spending, it will be an arduous task. But nothing less than democracy is at stake, even if people haven’t figured it out quite yet.