On Thursday, January 21, the Supreme Court, under the excuse of “freedom of speech,” invited heightened levels of corruption back into political campaigns with a ruling that has the potential to damage the democratic system of elections. In 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, usually referred to as the McCain-Feingold Act, was passed by Congress. This landmark legislation prohibited corporations and labor unions from using their money to run ads supporting or opposing election candidates in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before general elections. After Thursday’s ruling, which struck down this part of the law, in addition to two previous rulings supporting it, big business was handed a political megaphone with which it could both drown out the average citizen and try to control politicians to an even greater extent than it does today.
It is no secret that our economy is not in great shape. We are still struggling to recover from the recession that was largely brought on by banks and financial institutions on Wall Street. Citizens are upset over what they see as an administration more focused on health care than job creation, and they are disgusted with the million-dollar bonuses that banks are still doling out to the very people that helped drive this country’s economy into the ground. In this climate, America needs politicians who will represent the interests of the people, who will stand up to Wall Street’s untethered greed, and who are not afraid to act contrary to what the lobbyists want. Yet the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling will do precisely the opposite.
The Court uses the First Amendment, which establishes freedom of speech, to justify its ruling. It is extremely ironic, as it will accomplish the exact opposite. Already, the wealthiest citizens and the wealthiest corporations wield a disproportional amount of power and influence while oftentimes, the only voice that the poor and the middle-class have is their vote. And the corporations try to steal this away by attempting to influence voters through ads before the 30 or 60 day ban preceding the election. Now, the voice of the many will be even further smothered by the money-laden shout of the few. The same few that are responsible, in no small part, for this recession. Legally, McCain-Feingold does not even violate the First Amendment, it simply restricts corporate entities in a specified time-span to maintain the integrity of the election process. I could not agree more with Justice Stevens, who wrote the dissenting opinion of the Court:
“In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.”
It is highly unfortunate that the other Justices could not recognize the clarity of judgment exercised by Justices Stevens, Ginsberg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.
With the new ruling, politicians who support rich corporations legislatively are the ones who will benefit from corporate campaign spending. In other words, the people who act contrary to what you and I need are the ones who are going to have an easier time getting elected. President Obama has already said he intends to go to Congress and ask for a strong, bipartisan response to this decision. While I have no doubt he will get one, there is little that can be done by the executive and legislative branches at this point.
It is therefore up to the people. Midterm elections are coming up this year. Every citizen that wields a vote has the power to decide what they want. Expect to be bombarded with ads from huge, rich corporations and other special interests. They will ruthlessly strike at candidates whose election would be harmful to them and support those whose policies would help their special interests. Yet remember what these interests did to us. We can allow ourselves to be swayed by the new power that our government has handed the corrupters of democracy, or we can listen to the voices within us, the ones that remind us of what happened the last time regulations on Wall Street were loosened too extensively. Remember that we have the power to keep the special interests at bay, the power to shape our government, and the power to vote — one power that corporations do not have. The Supreme Court may have made it easier for corruption to enter into the democratic system, but it is up to us, as it always has been, to ensure that it does not.