Midterm elections are rapidly approaching and most of you probably wish you had a clearer idea of what’s at stake. Well for one the democrats could very well lose control of the House and, given a significant stroke of republican luck, the Senate.
But the run up to November 2nd isn’t just about seats in Congress: there is a more sinister undercurrent to this particular election. This is the first major election since the Supreme Court’s January ruling on the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which altered the landscape of American Political Campaigns dramatically.
Now when I say dramatically I know that some of you with more conservative leanings might be quick to shout hyperbole. So before you do let me clear up a few things and then tell you why I dare to be so bold with my rhetoric.
So let me start, before you waste too much time clamoring to inform me, by saying that yes I know that the bans on direct campaign contributions from corporations are still intact. This is perhaps the greatest myth surrounding the decision circulating in the public forum and, while not misleading to the point of being exclusively corrosive, its perpetuation does fuel a lot of anger that is perhaps a touch misdirected. This however, does not mean that the intensity of the reaction is unwarranted.
For those who don’t know, the Court’s decision centered around the ability of corporations to fund and air independent advertisements mentioning candidates within 30 days of a primary and within 60 days of a general election. For profit and not-for profit corporations alike had been banned from using broadcast, satellite or cable outlets for what was dubbed “electioneering communications”, by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, more commonly referred to as the McCain-Feingold Act, passed in 2002.
The intention of the provision should be clear as day: to limit the influence of corporate money on the crucial later stages of campaigns. The act, as its name indicates, enjoyed bipartisan support and was considered a considerable step forward in the progress towards complete campaign finance reform. This makes the Courts decision to overturn McCain-Feingold’s ban on “electioneering communications” all the more baffling and unsettling.
The decision to reverse McCain-Feingold was founded in the assertion of the majority of the Supreme Court that the provision was in violation of free speech, guaranteed by the 1st amendment of the constitution. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy outlines the application of the amendment closest to America’s heart, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”
I think the most destructive interpretative stretch Justice Kennedy is guilty of is his equating of citizens with associations of citizens. What he’s saying here is that corporations should be afforded the same rights and privileges as individuals. The danger in this is that it erodes the sacred sovereignty of the solitary citizen in the electoral process. Corporations have the resources to alter, dramatically, the complexion of a campaign season, much more so than your average voter. By allowing corporations the right to fund independent attack ads the citizen is further disempowered and further excluded from the political picture.
It doesn’t take a political scientist to recognize the danger that excessive corporate influence presents to the democratic tradition of American Elections. By opening the door so it stands only a little ajar, the supreme Court has set a precedent which enables the future penetration of self-serving corporate whispers that politicians, desperate to keep pace with the voracious spending needed to run for public office in this country, will find they can no longer ignore.