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Citizens United: The Sequel | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Citizens United: The Sequel

I took the week off from Think Again in honor of our nation’s 236th birthday, but Robert Parmet did a nice review of The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama for the History News Network, here.

I see a talk I gave last year on Kabuki Democracy at the Kennedy school’s Shorenstein Center is up here.

One of my (many) pet peeves in the Internet age is the use of “we” when the “we” does not include me, or, indeed, most people I know. For instance, from Slate, “Why Do Hotels Turn Us Into Monsters?” with the subhed “What is it about hotels that makes us all go so bizarrely and baroquely berserk?” 

Hotels do not turn me into anything other than what I was previously, much less a monster. I do not go “so bizarrely and baroquely berserk” in them, nor anywhere else, for that matter. The rest of the claims in this piece strike is odd, at best, as well. I see this a great deal.

Alter-reviews:
I saw David Bromberg at Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last week. It was a really wonderful show (and was broadcast live on Sirius). I had the blues and as you may know, there’s nothing better for the blues than the blues. Bromberg is one of the world’s great (and most underrated) blues guitarist and he had another guy with him—it was a four piece band—whom he insists plays better than he does. I don’t agree but I’m not the best judge. Anyway, the musical virtuosity was impressive and enjoyable without being ostentatious. The song selection was friendly—a few oldies and bluegrass excursions—but a really funky, somewhat reworked “Sharon” and an absolutely thrilling “I Will Not Be Your Fool.” Go see him if you can and hey, let’s hear it for paunchy old Jewish guys!

Now here’s Reed. 

The Dark Money Rises
by Reed Richardson

Summer has long been the season of the sequel in the movie business. But these days, by the time a blockbuster finally reaches theaters (or, sometimes, even before), the studio behind it is already talking about the next, bigger and bolder installment in the series. And, increasingly, it looks like the pro-corporate conservative movement is taking its cues—marketing-wise, at least—from Hollywood.

In true, big-time movie fashion, hot on the heels of their latest Citizens United expansion, these forces rolled out a schlocky summertime trailer about what's next. Contrasting soaring music and stock images of the D-Day invasion and Tea Party marchers against stark, black-and-white text, it vaguely teases at the Orwellian storyline to come and the momentous stakes involved. The First Amendment, they warn, is under attack by our very own president! (Perhaps COBRA is involved in this White House betrayal? We’ll have to wait till next year to find out, I guess.) But just know that brave Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is leading the charge against this outrage, helped out by some of these supposedly humble servants of the Constitution.

What’s that? You can’t recall President Obama stumping for the revocation of our free speech rights? Well then, you just aren’t paying attention or, more likely, aren’t a vast, multi-national corporation that really doesn’t want its extensive lobbying and political donations aired publicly. But make no mistake, according to conservatives, Obama, by supporting the allegedly heinous DISCLOSE Act and his idle talk about instituting martial law passing a Constitutional amendment to roll back the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United case, is undertaking a “radical” attempt “to expose [his] critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third-party allies.”

Hold on, didn't we just see this same campaign finance movie not too long ago? (But as Tobey Maguire can tell you, a few years is “a lifetime in the movie business.” And politics too, apparently.) Back during the George W. Bush administration, Republicans, including one Sen. Mitch McConnell, were precisely challenging the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (otherwise known as McCain-Feingold) on the grounds that rigorous disclosure would act as an antidote against corporate or oligarchic money overwhelming into our political process. That first legal challenge to McCain-Feingold—McConnell vs. FEC­—got shot down by the then Rehnquist Court in 2003, however. But that effort nonetheless offered a sneak preview of the strategy the right-wing plans to employ in the coming months and years.

As explained by this 2004 Brookings Institute analysis of the McConnell ruling—written by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, they of the recent notable book about extremist Republican intransigence, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks—conservatives trotted out a number of myths about the BCRA to discredit it. And what’s more, the Beltway media effectively bought into these talking points and propagated them.

“Throughout the year-plus since BCRA has taken effect, and especially since the Supreme Court’s decision, critics, allied with political reporters who are generally cynical about any institutional reform and with the political consultants who were the conduits for and recipients of much of the soft money in the pre-BCRA era, have pursued a series of themes perpetuating myths about the law and its impact.” (italics mine)

We saw much the same dynamic play out during the run-up to the Citizens United ruling two years ago and once again with the current DISCLOSE Act. To be fair, though, neither the press nor the litigants involved probably ever envisioned the former turning into the landmark ruling it now is. Originally, the case might have been best thought of as a right-wing-funded indie film with modest ambitions, hoping to carve out a small legal victory for big-money conservatives like the Koch brothers. But thanks to Justices Roberts and Kennedy, Citizens United was transformed from a vanity-project bomb (a la Atlas Shrugged) to sleeper mega-hit status (like, say, Paranormal Activity) almost overnight.

Last week’s legal sequel to that case, a kind of Citizens United 2: State Election Boogaloo, was, like many sophomore efforts, uninspiring yet, born along by its predecessor’s momentum, ultimately quite successful. Buoyed by this latest success, the right is now pivoting to a complete the trilogy of its efforts to undermine campaign finance law.

Some might point out that there is a gaping plot point from the original Citizens United case that would seem to throw a big wrench into the plans for a third installment. In that 2010 ruling, a majority of the Court voted—8–1, no less!—that disclosure must be a necessary part of their newly created campaign finance framework. Even Justice Scalia—playing against type here, no doubt—came out in favor of transparency and, in a subsequent decision involving a similar case, wrote:

“There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance. Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which…campaigns anonymously…and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.”

Undaunted, the right pushes on. This should come as no surprise, though. After dumping $235 million into a two-year, big-budget flop of a campaign to overturn Obamacare (let’s call it “Heaven’s Mandate”), the same people decided this past week to just keep writing seven-figure checks even after the law was ruled constitutional.

In March, the Wall Street Journal leaked the script published an editorial (paywall req.) laying out the intellectual framework of the right’s new antipathy toward open disclosure of corporate political donations. To read it is to peer into an upside-down world where corporate “free speech rights” are threatened by progressive allies and the media (if only it were so!), and where humble companies like ExxonMobil are unfairly discouraged from dumping untold millions of dollars into our electoral system (and other nations') to essentially buy favorable political outcomes. From the WSJ editorial:

“Businesses are arguably taking more risk by trying to dodge policy debates. When government of one kind or another controls 40% of the private economy, a business that doesn't participate in politics either directly, or indirectly through a trade group, is a patsy for the next Congressional or regulatory shakedown. And it is leaving the policy field open to domination by unions, the Sierra Club and billionaires like George Soros and Peter Lewis.

“Corporations are not democracies. They are businesses organized for the purpose of making money to increase value for all shareholders, not to serve the narrow goals of some shareholders.

“The political left is using this disclosure campaign not to serve the interests of shareholders, but to further its own policy agenda. It is an abuse of the proxy process, and companies would be wise to resist it in the interest of their business, their shareholders, and their country.”

So much for that whole ‘marketplace of ideas’ shtick the right likes to crow about all the time. Here, the Journal is essentially saying that consumers and watchdog groups are big meanies because they might hold corporations up for public scrutiny and accountable for their political activities through the likes of public relations efforts and boycotts. Never mind the integrity of our electoral process, such disclosure could hurt their bottom line, so let’s just agree to keep all that stuff hidden instead, OK? You know, for, um, democracy’s sake or something.

Ominously, the establishment press hasn’t really caught on to this ideological reversal. Sure, it made a lot of campaign trail hay out of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s clumsy “corporations are people” gaffe. But few, if any, news organizations connected his ridiculous statement with the broader thinking behind it and how that is now coloring conservative plans for our democracy to function as a kind of unregulated financial free-for-all. (Fox Business, naturally, gave his comments a rave review.)

A notable exception, and one that happens to coincide with my movie business analogy, is the coverage of this issue by the Los Angeles Times. In May, Times reporters Matea Gold and Joseph Tanfani thoroughly documented the secretive archipelago of conservative groups that spent an astounding $55 million in the 2010 midterm elections, yet is run out of a post office box in a Phoenix suburb. Yeah, nothing out of the ordinary there. The pair also put out a handy spreadsheet of the other right-wing front groups that this euphemistically named Center to Protect Patient Rights funnels money to. Then, last week, Tanfani shared a byline with Melanie Watson on an excellent Times story further highlighting the right-wing’s about face on campaign transparency and its nationwide effort to dismantle existing disclosure rules and electoral spending caps.

My only quibble with the Times reporting, though, is that I think it remains too sanguine about the chances of those champions of campaign disclosure winning the day. As proof of their optimism, the pair note the strong Court majority supporting transparency in the Citizens United case and quote Scalia’s strong defense of campaign finance openness from two years ago (see above). But as we’ve learned in the past few weeks, the respect this Court shows for established legal precedent can nonetheless often rest on a knife’s edge, particularly when the right-wing’s long-term political goals are there for the taking.

In a way, the right-wing’s embrace of so-called dark money in our political campaigns reminds me of this classic scene from what may be the best movie sequel of all time. There is an important difference, however. Today’s political godfathers are more than willing to shell out untold amounts of corporate money to influence our political system. But when it comes to how much they think our democracy deserves to know about it, well, then their answer is still the same as Michael Corleone’s: nothing.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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