Friday, January 22, 2010

Citizens United and loosely related thoughts

Tim Lee says what I would like to say about today's Supreme Court decision.
It’s true, of course, that a corporation prepared to spend $1 million on ads criticizing a particular legislator will get that legislator’s attention. But there’s nothing unique about this. It can also get his attention by hiring a lobbying firm that employs a former staffer. It can get his attention by arranging $100,000 in bundled contributions from executives, clients, and friends of the company. It can get his attention by creating astroturf organizations. And there are probably lots of other mechanisms I haven’t thought of.

The key difference between independent expenditures and these other mechanisms is that the independent expenditures are the most open and transparent. To run an effective “issue ad,” a corporation has to make an argument that is persuasive voters. I don’t want to sugar coat the situation; sometimes independent expenditures finance ads that are sleazy and misleading. But given a choice between corporations spending their money on ads about how Senator Smith hates America or spending their money on K Street, I’ll take the ads, because at least voters still get the final decision.
Just as increased regulation tends to benefit large, incumbent economic actors, limits on campaign finance and speech seem likely to benefit entrenched political actors, not just politicians themselves but the party apparatuses.

A more worthwhile effort at political reform would be to weaken the two-party system.
Of course, two-party power comes from more than just ideology. Around the turn of the century a wave of "good government" reforms began cementing the legal privileges of the two major parties. Through the 19th century, the government didn't control the printing of ballots. Parties themselves printed ballots for their candidates and supplied them for voters to cast. Within fairly wide parameters, all you needed was access to a printing press to be as legitimate a candidate as any other. The creation of state-issued ballots, with state rules for who could appear on them (rules designed by the two major parties for their benefit), helped destroy vital third parties by making it expensive -- often prohibitively so -- for them even to be on the ballot. The government takeover of the ballot was part of a general movement around the turn of the century to take power away from independent party structures and imbed it in the state, in the name of halting the evils of patronage and corruption. Not surprisingly, in doing so, the dominant Democrats and Republicans arranged it so that the new barriers and controls stymied their competitors more than they harmed the big parties.
I have to admit I hope something comes of the Tea Party movement. Not because it's respectable; it's odious, but it's impossible to predict how it would evolve, and how the two other parties would evolve in response. The current symbiotic duopoly is more harmful to the ideal of democratic self-governance than corporate political speech.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned the second quote was from a 2002 Brian Doherty piece in Reason, for those who don't click everything.


  1. Nice point on the transparency of campaign advertising, and the importance of "weakening the two-party system". However, are we talking about "corporations controlling politicians" or "politicians getting elected"? Because the reliance on ads makes corporate intrusion necessary for a candidate to win (and is not good whatsoever for "weakening the two-party system"). If candidates had to run with fewer bells and whistles in their ads, voters might be forced to choose based on content, not media exposure, and candidates may have less need for corporate sponsorship. Any idea what the stats are on how much of a politicians finances are devoted to campaigns?

  2. Weakening the two-party system was just an idea I wanted to write about a bit. Nothing about this SCOTUS decision will radically alter the two-party system.

    If you don't have organizations (corporations, non-profits, etc) paying for ads, the advantage goes to the default option, the incumbent.

    Voters by and large do not choose based on content regardless of bells, whistles, or shining lights. 3/4 of people don't know what general policy subject area the term 'cap and trade' has to do with.

    I know no such campaign finance stats.