Thursday, February 11, 2010

New Dordt Diamond Column: Bring on the Robber Barons!

On January 21, 2010, American democracy came under attack. Or so President Obama and a slew of media voices would have us believe.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on campaign finance in Citizens United v. FEC, Obama said, “strikes at democracy itself.” And Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter said the ruling would lead to “the greatest accumulation of corporate power since the age of the robber barons.”

Are they right? Do we stand at the edge of a corporate dictatorship? Not quite.

Before this ruling, it was illegal for corporations – even political non-profits like the ACLU – to donate money to political candidates in federal elections. These groups were also banned from using their money to fund independent TV or radio ads encouraging people to vote a certain way in the 60 days before a general election.

All well and good. But there were huge loopholes in the law. All those annoying ads telling you to “Call John Smith and tell him it’s time to stop hiding from Iowans” were perfectly fine, so long as the ad didn’t actually tell Iowans to vote against John Smith. Corporations could also donate without limit (and anonymously) to trade associations and so-called 527 groups, which ran their own disingenuous ad campaigns. Corporations spent over a billion dollars in the 2008 campaign.

So really, this new ruling doesn’t change much. Corporations, trade associations and unions are still banned from contributing directly to candidates. But these groups can now spend as much money as they want on campaign ads that explicitly tell you not to vote for John Smith.

In short, they used to have to be sneaky about it. Now they can be blatant about it if they want to.

Constitutionally, the decision is tough to criticize. The First Amendment protects both free speech and free association. That’s hard to square with laws against free speech for certain free associations.

Now that the Court has spoken, Congress should abandon its vain quest to control campaign advertising. Instead, Congress should require corporations to disclose their political spending, and to allow their shareholders to vote on whether to spend profits on political advocacy. That way, every member of the corporate “free associations” would have her proper say.

In the meantime, let’s remember the story of the boy who cried “Dead democracy!” and thank God that we live in 19th least corrupt country on the planet.

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