On the Not Visibly Harming the Election Process

So a few years ago, the concept of the Super PAC was born from the outcome of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, providing yet another way for rich people to skew an ostensibly democracy-oriented government to their plutocratic way of thinking.  And it brings us to the January PF topic, Resolved: On balance, the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission harms the election process.  And what I’ve got for you here is a negative case because I’m not readily convinced that the Citizens United ruling did anything.  Sure, a lot of people aren’t happy about it and there’s punditry weighing in both on the harms and not-harms of it, but here’s what I’m looking at:

While it is true that the overwhelming majority of Super PAC funding came from a super-minority of people, the election results also left that super-minority super-disappointed.  Donald Trump blasted Karl Rove on Twitter for “blowing $400 million this cycle. Every race [Rove’s] Crossroads GPS ran ads in, the Republicans lost.  What a waste of money,” a far cry from “effective and efficient platform for effecting change” that Crossroads had been just days before.  The apparent ineffectiveness of Super PAC spending played out as control of the Presidency, the Senate, and Congress changed in no statistically significant way.  Super PACs are currently viewed as a “colossal failure.” So our opponents are going to have a difficult time proving that there’s harm to the election process here.  (Related article.)

But that’s just the start of their troubles.  See, the resolution starts from a false premise of things having been “on balance” at a point where we’d be able to determine that they got out of balance.  Ted Nace traces the rise of corporate rights and power in his book Gangs of America and shows that there’s a long, long history here:

What is surprising about the “speech = money” decisions of the 1970s, 1980s,and 1990s, is that the First Amendment was now being turned into a shield for wealth, property, and corporate power. Such an outcome could only occur by means of a careful compartmentalization of rationales. Thus, Supreme Court decisions that pretended to walk a careful line — protecting corporate free speech rights on the one hand while permitting certain legislation aimed at preventing corruption on the other — actually relied on highly artificial ways of conceiving both the nature of “free speech” and the nature of “corruption.” By “speech,” the Court had come to accept the idea that expenditures of money by immense business entities in political campaigns deserved the same degree of protection as utterances by human beings. By corruption, the Court had limited itself to the notion of quid pro quo corruption, where particular movements of money could be connected directly to particular actions in politics… Such twisting and contorting of rationales is not new, as the history of the [1886] Santa Clara decision amply demonstrates. (p 160)

Nace later recounts that

Sociologists Dan Clawson and Alan Neustadtl spent over fifteen years studying the means by which corporations influence political decisions, especially through political action committees. For the most part, Clawson and Neustadtl agreed with skeptics of regulatory approaches, concluding that because “money can be used in a million different ways” most types of campaign finance regulation can’t achieve their goal of limiting corporate influence: “Campaign finance could be thought of as similar to a balloon…. Regulators… can push the balloon down in one place — but that makes it pop out farther somewhere else…. The regulatory model of campaign finance reform is doomed to failure.” (p 211)

So part of the reason Citizens United didn’t seem to have any effect on the last election cycle is that it didn’t mark any radical shift from the well-established corporate and plutocratic power that’s been developing for over almost 130 years and erasing our sense of “on balance.” And our opponents aren’t going to be able to explain how the current Citizens United ruling is clearly causing harm when it’s based on 130 years of legal precedent favoring corporate and moneyed interests that they can’t competently address in 4 minute sound-bites.

And as Americans, we are feeling that there has been harm to our democratic process and it seems like big money is to blame, possibly more so now than in the past.  But to us it looks like this issue comes from the decoupling of productivity with jobs and pay. Andrew McAfee describes this as “the great decoupling of the US economy“:

In the early 1980s the picture started to change for the average American worker. There were still a lot of jobs available, but they started to pay less well. Median household income became decoupled from the other three stats and grew more slowly than they did. By the time of the 2001 recession, median income was lagging behind pretty badly… By the end of 2011, things had become much worse in two ways. First, median household income was actually lower than it was a decade earlier. In fact, it was lower than at any point since 1996. And second, the American job creation engine was sputtering badly. Between 1981 and 2001 the economy generated plenty of low-paying jobs. After 2001, though, it wasn’t even generating enough of these, and employment growth started to lag badly behind GDP and productivity growth…

So when “speech = money” as it has since the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling, the problem isn’t really that corporations have free speech, but rather that speech isn’t actually free and most people can’t afford it any more — and that’s a problem we’ve had for quite some time now.

It’s one thing, and a popular thing, to vilify the Citizens United ruling but to actually grasp how little it has changed American politics is entirely different and this level of perspective warrants a negative ballot.  Our election process was already as harmed as it was going to be when $400 million of Super PAC money won no elections.

Sidebar: There are a couple of other points to bring in here.  Glenn Greenwald spends a substantial chunk of With Liberty and Justice For Some discussing telecoms like AT&T aiding the government in bloody well ignoring the 4th Amendment, and then lobbying (like, with truckloads of cash) congress for ex post facto immunity when people — unable to sue the too-sneaky government — sued the not-sneaky-enough telecoms instead.  The telecoms got their immunity and the Supreme Court upheld it.  Also, Lawrence Lessig has the backup answer on Super PAC giving: “.000063 percent — 196 Americans — have given more than 80 percent of the individual super-PAC money spent in the presidential elections so far” as of July 10th-ish.  As far as I know he’s a totally great guy — he gave me evidence to work with when I was an undergrad! — and thus recommend his book Republic, Lost for another angle on this topic.