No Discount On Democracy

November 26, 2012 Current Commentary Comments Off
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With shopping on so many minds this past holiday weekend, I ran a Google search for the phrases “democracy for sale” and “Citizens United,” and got 222,000 hits.

Most of the top items were dire warnings, almost all from the political left, that the Supreme Court’s dismantling of restrictions on corporate and union funding of political advertising was going to bury the will of the people beneath a mountain of special-interest cash. “Democracy for sale” was the headline that the Boston Globe placed on an opinion piece by former congressman Jim Leach, now the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a few weeks before the election. “Citizens United: Democracy for Sale” also was the headline for a column on Politico.com by Tom Perriello, a former congressman who now heads the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and Amy Rosenbaum, a former aide to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi who now works at Perriello’s organization.

If the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission really did put democracy up for sale, then the parties who bought it probably don’t have to wait until after Christmas to return it and ask for a refund. The recent election results don’t show that they got very much for their money.

As I have observed several times, most recently following President Obama’s negative comments a few months ago, Citizens United simply acknowledged that the Constitution protects speech – all speech. The protection does not apply only to speech issued by “people.” The right of free speech includes the right to hear speech, as well as the right to issue it. But just because we hear speech, willingly or otherwise (as we ruefully reflect on the just-past avalanche of television ads and robotic phone calls, especially in swing states), does not mean we are obliged to take it to heart. We make up our own minds.

As Paul Sherman wrote in a recent opinion piece for USA Today, “[…] it seems the rumors of democracy’s death were greatly exaggerated.”

It was, inarguably, a record-breaking campaign where pure spending was concerned, and independent conservative groups certainly outspent their opponents. But this spending disparity did not show up in the results. President Obama was re-elected, and the political balances in the House and Senate moved only slightly, in both cases in favor of the Democrats, who generally loathe Citizens United.

What happened?

Some observers argue that labor unions exerted influence of their own, balancing the increased corporate spending. There is at least some truth to this. Citizens United gave unions the ability to reach out to any audience they could find, rather than only their own members, with union funds. As a result, union speech did increase in this election, especially in the form of door-to-door canvassing. Corporations still outspent unions by a considerable margin, however. There is no clear correlation between the two sides’ political spending and electoral outcome.

The larger lesson of the 2012 campaign is that money spent on political speech, either positive or negative, does not buy votes. It can influence those votes, but only to the degree that the message being conveyed has some intrinsic appeal to potential voters, and only as long as those voters actually vote. Yet voters can, and sometimes will, reject even a message that is well-produced and nearly ubiquitous. We live in a world pervaded by advertising of all sorts. Most of us have learned how to sift through expensive production values and evaluate the message beneath. A good advertising campaign can’t save a bad product.

Citizens United is about free speech and only about free speech. No matter how large a megaphone corporations or labor unions can afford, voters still have the final word. The decision’s critics won’t abandon their fight quickly, but this year’s election demonstrated that there is no reason to sacrifice our commitment to free expression of ideas just because the ideas are expressed by those who have financial clout. Their clout stops at the ballot box.


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