US Supreme Court uncaps corporate political spending

There was a time when I went to SFU and a time when I served as head of elections for the student union they have over there. It’s a big school, and hence, according to the ambitious hopes of the student union constitution, which declares every SFU student to be one of its “members,” I had over 25,000 potential voters to worry about. That same constitution, however, imposed a rather dated $50 campaign spending limit for all potential candidates, a frustrating restraint on the sort of far-reaching populism most student politicians want their elections to become.

Because their campaign budgets were so small, the candidates understandably became very touchy and defensive towards any perceived signs of over-spending on the part of their opponents. If a candidate tried to cut photocopying expenses by making his posters with felt pens and flattened shoe boxes then shouldn’t I, as elections director, force him to record the estimated cash value of such products in his campaign budget? Conversely, if the other guy is lucky enough to have his own car and can drive down to Kinkos to get his flyers done, shouldn’t he be forced to budget his gas money? Or how about the car itself, while we’re at it? I tried to impose order as best I could, but the more convoluted and obsessive the candidates’ desires for “fairness” got, more arbitrary my decisions became.

That such questions are so exceedingly tricky to answer at even the most micro, small-time level should give some insight into the challenges that have been facing the United States Supreme Court in its recent deliberations over American campaign financing laws, and some context into their decision last week to just throw out the whole mess of ‘em altogether.

The trigger case in question, Citizens United V. Federal Election Commission arose out of exactly the sort of cranky and paranoid hair-splitting that inevitably arises from laws that seek to regulate an idea as amorphous and indefinable as “campaigning.” Some conservative director made an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary, and wanted to show it on TV. This was back in the days when Hillary Clinton was still running for something, so angry liberals quickly claimed that the evil right-wing director had produced little more than a 90-minute Republican commercial, a critique which the US electoral commission eventually bought. This put the director’s firm, Citizen’s United, in a tough place. As they maintained that they were merely making a movie about Hillary Clinton, a legitimate public figure with a story worth documenting, no laws governing how political advertisements should be crafted were followed, lest of all the ones limiting financing.

During the case itself, the Citizens United people predictably played the where-does-it-all-end card. At what point does the expression of political opinion during election season evolve into something the government has an obligation to control and regulate? When does an opinion, be it in a magazine article, book, talk show, or blog post, become partisan to the point that it constitutes outright “campaigning?” If campaigning itself becomes impossible to define, it becomes much easier to segue into the related argument that state-imposed limits on the funding of campaign activities are fundamentally illegitimate. And that’s more or less what the US high court said in Citizens, throwing out America’s once strict limitations on just how much cash big corporations and unions are permitted to spend helping candidates get elected (in one way or another). Donating money is a form of free expression, the majority faction declared, and despite the best arguments of some, they could find no justifiable argument for limiting the speech of the wealthy simply because they are unpopular.

This matter is one that unnerves a great deal of people because it evokes so many ubiquitous middle class fears regarding the secret manipulative power of the capitalist plutocracy, a theme that looms so constantly large in our popular culture. President Obama, a man in dire need of some populist cred, has been doing his best to monger these fears himself, characterizing the court’s ruling as giving even “more voice to the powerful interests that already drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

Yet the fact remains that money, corporate donated or otherwise, actually plays a much less significant role in democratic elections than is fashionable to realize. The Freakonomics guys, in their study of the phenomenon found that even the most extravagant of spending, like, say, doubling your campaign budget from one election to the next, will, at most, win you a measly extra 1% of the popular vote. We voters are a great deal smarter than we give ourselves credit for, and rich blowhards who think they can buy their way to power are usually a lot less cunning. The fact that you are probably barely aware of who Steve Forbes and Ross Perot are is probably some indicator of that.

Campaign finance regulations fall into that ample void of ideas that sound agreeable enough on a gut level, but become quite incoherent when tried to implement in practice. In a free society, our elections should be among the most unregulated and unrestrained periods of free expression and activism, a time when citizens of all interests, opinions, and yes, wealth, can freely organize to make their voices heard within our democratic system. Mucking about with this simple principle, and arbitrarily setting limits on how much expression this-or-that group can make based on vague instincts about what “seems fair” is ultimately an arbitrary game, no more principled than telling some uppity student that he has to document how much hair gel he’s using during his run for the library board.

// JJ McCullough

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