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A Reply to The Atlantic's Wendy Kaminer | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

A Reply to The Atlantic's Wendy Kaminer

I don’t begrudge Wendy Kaminer her determination to defend the Supreme Court’s wrongheaded decision in the case of Citizens United v. FEC. But I do wish that she would come up with her own arguments for why she thinks the justices were right to allow unlimited contributions from corporate treasuries to flood the electoral landscape—making it possible for the nation's most powerful economic interests to manipulate not just individual politicians and electoral contests but political discourse itself. Instead, she’s twisting my words, and those of former US Senator Russ Feingold, in hopes of suggesting that Feingold and I disagree about the Citizens United ruling in particular and the money-in-politics debate in general. In fact, Feingold and I are share precisely the same concerns.

In her column, Kaminer accuses me of engaging in “chutzpah, shamelessness, or negligence” when I suggested in a recent Washington Post column that Feingold, who was defeated last fall, was a "victim of Citizens United spending.” She points to a post-election interview in The Nation where Feingold speaks specifically about his own campaign spending and suggests that he had what he saw as a sufficient campaign treasury in 2010. Rather than complain about the fact that his millionaire opponent’s self-financed campaign matched his own small donor–driven effort, Feingold said:  “I'm not here to say that I was a victim in particular of that.” Kaminer seems to take this as a suggestion that Feingold has no complaints.

What she neglects to note is the fact that Feingold was not merely targeted by millions of dollars in attack ads paid for by his millionaire opponent. He was, as well, the target of a campaign—lavishly funded by corporations and wealthy individuals—that used so-called “independent expenditures” to attack the senator in the final weeks of the 2010 campaign. As Feingold’s own campaign announced after the US Chamber of Commerce launched its attack ads: “The corporate special interests are lining up to take out their number one enemy, Russ Feingold.… the wealthy, out-of-state corporate special interests (are) trying to buy this election.” In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, the senator specifically addressed the Citizen United money—with the radio network reporting that “Feingold says recent investigations indicate that the Chamber of Commerce is raising money from foreign corporations to fund such ads and he acknowledges that the practice is legal because of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision which lifted limits on the amount of campaign money corporations can spend. Feingold called on his Republican opponent, Ron Johnson, to speak out against the use of independent funds for such ads.”

Now, I understand that Kaminer may not have followed the Wisconsin race as closely as some of us did. I could even understand that she might have been confused if all Feingold had said in his interview with The Nation was the “I'm not here to say that I was a victim in particular of that” line. But it is hard to imagine how she missed the rest of his answer to the question, in which Feingold refers to the broader issue of Citizens United money: “What happened in my race was frustrating. What happened in 2010 was frustrating. But it is going to be worse in 2012 unless we do something—much worse. That's why money in politics is such a fundamental issue. In terms of the incredibly corrosive effect that unlimited spending by corporations has, we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg.... I think the process is being destroyed by this.”

A few lines later, Feingold argues, again in specific reference to Citizens United spending: “This thing that's going on with our political process is so destructive, so contrary to what I'm sure the founders intended, that we've got to find a solution.” He then goes on to say: “Something has to be done about this. This is one of the worst threats to democracy in our nation's history. I don't think I'm exaggerating.”

Russ Feingold, one of the prime targets of precisely the sort of shadowy corporate special-interest attacks that the Citizens United ruling encourages, is right when he says that this kind of campaigning represents “one of the worst threats to democracy in our nation's history.” And, while I know that Wendy Kaminer disagrees, I do wish that she would try a little harder to consider quoting Senator Feingold—and this writer—in context.

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