The Court, Speech, and Playing Politics

The new Supreme Court ruling on political speech has been slammed by President Obama and a wide variety of Democrats and liberals, such as Keith Olbermann. While I cannot claim any level of legal expertise, and am ignorant of the decision’s specifics, there may be a significant silver lining lost in the condemnation.

The following argument is a paraphrase of Daniel Indiviglio, from the Atlantic’s Politics blog. It goes like this: large corporations were previously able to fund partisan political ads through 527s and Political Action Committees, so instead of opening the way to any new spending affecting politics, the field has now been opened for small businesses to fund advertisements, without having to employ a large legal department in order to maintain “proper separation.”

In essence, in allowing corporations free reign, we’ve democratized their involvement. Such a statement still sounds a little strange to my ears – corporate electioneering has long been seen as intrusive and corruptive, many times rightly so. However, corporations are not universally bad. They are this country’s industry: UPS ships our packages; Chic-Fil-A and Waffle House feed us; Coca-cola refreshes us at the ball park, The Weather Channel keeps us up-to-date about incoming storms, and CNN keeps us way too up-to-date about everything. While our society could be described as socialist, because of the high involvement of government in commerce, our private companies are a legacy to be proud of, even with all of the horrible faults and failures of companies like Exxon, Enron, and Worldcom.

Beyond the above, it’s hard to fathom what exactly will change as a result of this policy. Money will always find a way into politics, even going so far as directed donations to a politician’s charity of choice in order to curry access; seeking to remove its influence is foolhardy. On the contrary, the more we allow for openness and sunshine, the more corruption can be managed, and beyond that, the more secrecy will stand out. Moreover, this bill will not strictly benefit GOP interests: Democrats will benefit from groups such as unions being able to directly pay for ads.

If I haven’t yet convinced you, let’s take one step further back. Corporations are groups of individuals, and while corporate personhood has many problems, I am sympathetic to claims that groups of individuals should be able to make political speech. Just as I’d hope citizens should band together in groups to campaign for certain candidates in local elections, there’s no reason why a group of shareholders shouldn’t be able to do the same thing. Free speech is free speech, no matter which group of people is saying it.

What frustrates me more about this decision is that I think President Obama realizes the above. However, the decision is a political gift to the Democratic Party: thanks to Bush’s nominees to the court, corporations now have theoretically unlimited donation powers. The letter of thelaw has changed in a way that will allow Democrats to hit the GOP over the head, repeatedly, during both the upcoming midterm elections as well as Obama’s re-election campaign. But because our polarized politics demands a winner and a loser, Democrats can now play victim to a precedent-overturning, corporation-loving Supreme Court.

Will our democracy be damaged by this ruling? It’s possible. Will elections be more dominated by corporate dollars? It’s likely. But our democracy is already damaged, and our elections already dominated by PACs and bundlers. Even our contribution limits are a joke: besides being able to donate to political parties, 50 rich individuals can donate to 50 candidates, allowing each person to deliver 50 times more money through cooperation. These things happen today, and this new ruling won’t break much new ground. Instead, we should celebrate the increased sunshine that the law now allows, and hold candidates accountable for their corporate supporters.

Besides, my prediction is that in seeking to avoid negative publicity, PACs and 527s will stick around. Why fund someone explicitly with political fallout when you can fund them under the table, without it being so obvious? This ruling will make that under-the-table dealing more suspicious, and while I’m not sold that it’s all good, it’s certainly not all bad. It’s a pity our national politics won’t be able to recognize that.