By 4-1-4 vote, the Supreme Court held that campaign finance limitations were an unconstitutional restraint on the 1st Amendment in McCutcheon v. FEC. The inevitable ensued. The TL;dr version of the opinion reads:
The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute.Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. See, e.g., Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U. S. 1, 26–27. It may not, however, regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others. See, e.g., Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, 564 U. S. ___, ___.
The New York Times editorial castigating the opinion offered the dissent,
The Supreme Court on Wednesday continued its crusade to knock down all barriers to the distorting power of money on American elections. In the court’s most significant campaign-finance ruling since Citizens United in 2010, five justices voted to eliminate sensible and long-established contribution limits to federal political campaigns. Listening to their reasoning, one could almost imagine that the case was simply about the freedom of speech in the context of elections.
Yet again, the clash of rights and interests raised its monumentally ugly head, with the hated First Amendment at its core. The conflicting issue, the distortion of electoral finance, and by the influence of money, isn’t quite as easily tethered:
But make no mistake, like other rulings by the Roberts court that have chipped away at campaign-finance regulations in recent years, the McCutcheon decision is less about free speech than about giving those few people with the most money the loudest voice in politics.
This goes to the motivations of the five justices holding for McCutcheon, rather than upholding the First Amendment. As Gail Collins snarkily asks in her column,
How do you feel about that, people? On the one hand, this cannot possibly be a helpful step forward. On the other hand, we already live in a country where billionaires can spend endless amounts of cash trying to influence elections with their own private groups. The Koch brothers’ group has spent more than $7 million on ads in North Carolina against Senator Kay Hagan, and there isn’t even a Republican candidate yet. How much farther could we sink?
While the point about how this ruling enables a handful of the mega-wealthy to bend politics to their will because of their ability to throw huge sums of money into campaigns is undeniable, consider the impact had the ruling gone the other way. Would we be better off had the Court held that the First Amendment assures free speech and association, provided it pleased the political sensibilities of the majority of Americans?
These arguments tend to be filled to overflowing with vague passions and highly loaded words, artfully designed to fuel the angst of political sensibilities. After all, there are some who hate the idea that the Koch Brothers can influence elections, but don’t quite hate it as much when it’s George Soros’ money. Hate isn’t always principled.
Much as was raised during the war over Citizens United, a case of more dubious right than McCutcheon, the death of our political system of one person, one vote was foretold. No doubt that was due to its having worked so very well up to then. And indeed, it’s hard to argue that money doesn’t make the political world go ’round, especially if you happen to be friends with a congressman whose fundraising efforts for the next cycle begin the day after his election.
But the solution to this vexing conflict between the freedom to spend money on any political candidate a rich guy thinks is for sale and to have elections uncorrupted from the influence of heavily financed lies and shams remains ours, the voters, the people.
Indeed, democracy is held hostage by the ignorant. It can be argued that the manipulation of media by wealth will render us all ignorant, feeding us only the crap they want us to swallow.
But this can also be seen as part of the maturation process of American politics. The Fourth Estate, assuming it continues to exist in some form, can still provide us with information about our candidates and issues, meaning that we will still have an opportunity to educate ourselves no matter how glossy and easily digestible the corporate influence might be. We also know that big money is being used to manipulate our beliefs, and have the ability to guard against it, to recognize it for what it is, to accept or reject it.
There are two distinct paths available to every person in this nation, and no amount of money or influence can stop us. We can moot the decision in McCutcheon and Citizens United. We can laugh in the face of the mega-wealthy, who squander their money on campaign advertisements designed to fool us, to trick us into loving who they want us to love and hating who they want us to hate. We can own our government.
But it takes effort. And thought.
The question is whether we, the People, are too lazy, stupid and selfish to fix our own political mess. First, if every person in this country contributed $10 to a political campaign, we would dwarf the contributions of the mega-wealthy. But we won’t, because we are either too cheap, too disengaged or too politically ignorant.
We can recognize that political campaign ads are designed to lie to us, to fool us, and we can make the active choice to disregard them and not allow ourselves to be fooled.
We can put in a few minutes to actually become aware of what the people who run for office have done in the past and want to do in the future. And if they don’t, we can remember that so we don’t vote for them again.
No amount of money can force us to be stupid. We have to make that choice for ourselves. Regardless of whether the Supreme Court majority was ill-motivated, a bunch of unseemly scum who pandered to monied interests to control our government, or whether this was about the First Amendment, we are not obliged to go along with the corrupted politics that will come of it.
No editorials will change the fact that a decision was made, and money will be used to try to overcome our independent judgment. While one adage is “money talks,” another is a fool and his money are soon parted. Let the mega-wealthy “express” their political views through massive campaign contributions. And let us enjoy watching their money squandered because we refuse to be fooled again.
The First Amendment can survive in an uncorruptable nation if we decide not to allow ourselves to be corrupted. On the other hand, if we keep thinking that someone else is going to do our political heavy lifting for us, so we can sit on the couch and be fed political advertisements that will inform our vote, then we get the government we deserve. Even if money talks, we don’t have to listen.