Money Talks

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.

31 comments on “Money Talks

  1. Pingback: And They Care Why? | Simple Justice

  2. nidefatt

    You seem to be forgetting the corruption angle. It’s a little hard to swallow the idea that the First Amendment was also intended to protect those who would give favors to politicians that will make them beholden to that donator’s interests.

    1. SHG Post author

      The opinion leaves direct corruption out of the mix, though we all suppose that there is likely a quid pro quo for the loot, whether overt or not. So if we all started putting our $10 where our mouth is, we could buy a politician or two ourselves. And the increase in the contribution amount doesn’t mean politicians weren’t for sale before, just that they cost less.

  3. Jim March

    If the Supremes had ruled the other way, billionaires would still have given big bucks to politicians. The first difference is that the cash wouldn’t be tracked. The second is that only the billionaires willing to break the law, the most corrupt type, would have spent money only on the most corrupt politicians.


    Another thought…the political money that is always the hardest to track is payments to private investigators specializing in political dirt. Pay half a dozen of those guys $50k each and you can destroy pretty much anybody. This happens in presidential politics a lot. If this was criminalized, which is basically what would happen if the ruling had gone the wrong way, we’d see more of this at lower levels of politics because it would be one of the last “safe” ways to route dark money.

    1. John Barleycorn

      The Supremes need a booking a booking agent for 2015 and mandatory reading of all dissents and majority opinions.

      I am thinking the Verizon Center for the majority opinions, Camden Yards for the dissents, and the Wilkinson Rec Center in Anacostia for oral arguments.

        1. John Barleycorn

          Man up left center is only 364 at Camden.

          If it wasn’t for the Green Monster I might have went with Fenway.

  4. Brett Middleton

    I’m sure there’s a free speech issue here somewhere. I’m just not sure what it is. Are the interests of free speech served when only the most popular messages, which attract the most funding, heard widely? Perhaps our interests would be better served if the least-popular messages reached the widest audiences, making people think. Do noise ordinances inhibit free speech by preventing the guy with the biggest megaphone from outshouting everyone else, or do they enhance it by allowing everyone an equal hearing? Perhaps all our political problems would be solved if every candidate was handed exactly the same funding to use as they will.

    I dunno, so I feel compelled to resort to my fallback position of preferring less government control over the alternative.

    1. SHG Post author

      There are two ways for you to learn about the First Amendment issues at stake. One way is for me to spoon feed it to you. The other way is for you to read the opinions. There is a third way, that involves going to law school, but it’s really overkill, so I don’t recommend it.

  5. Alex Stalker

    I am quite convinced by anecdotal evidence consisting of the people I deal with on a daily basis as a public defender that a significant portion of the adult american populace is currently incapable of critical thought. I don’t get this impression just from clients, but also from some witnesses, cops, and members of the jury pool.

    Maybe I’m being a little too cynical, but I think we’re all doomed to get the political system we deserve.

    1. SHG Post author

      I agree. My expectation isn’t that people will suddenly get their heads out of their collective asses, but stop complaining that it’s dark and smells weird in there.

    2. Chris Ryan

      Maybe I’m being a little too cynical, but I think we’re all doomed to get the political system we deserve.

      Rarely is a truer (political) statement made then this. It gets old hearing people complain about politics then you find out they either dont vote or vote based on some piece of paper they got mailed telling them how to vote on every exact issue/candidate.

    3. Brett Middleton

      That would suggest that the critical-thinking minority deserves the system brought about by the non-critical majority. Since we can’t outvote them and can’t run away to someplace significantly better, then it would seem our just desserts must proceed from something other than our own actions. Original sin, perhaps?

    4. william doriss

      Too cynical? Not at all. This is not news. It’s old news, aka the blues.
      Stalker,… is that your real name? Stalker, the public pretender, is NOT a stalker in real life, no way!
      Sorry, I could not resist. We have a practicing attorney around here named “Lawless”.
      Yes, I have confronted him in court–and lost–to Lawless. (Only in Amerika. You cannot make this stuff up.)
      As far as “…some witnesses, cops, and members of the jury pool,” we are in complete agreement. Been there, done that, so to speak. On the other hand, who is to say? The judicial branch is essentially nuts, out of control, etc., IMO: A race to the bottom and most ignorant amongst us.
      Now, back to McCutcheon, I’m surprised SHG even tip-toed into these treacherous waters. I would have bet otherwise. This is difficult stuff. It’s interesting that the Supremes broke down along predictable ideological grounds: conservative/liberal, once again. Are they unable to agree on anything? Other than the political phantasmagorical reality that they are “supreme”?
      P.S., I immensely dislike, disrespect and disregard SCOTUS. They always seem to be “behind the curve”, if you catch my drift. Dred Scott decision anyone? And dozens of subsequent decisions which have been reversed over the years. What is a god-fearing citizen to think?

      1. John Barleycorn

        ~~~What is a god-fearing citizen to think?~~~
        Sodomy of all varieties, give it chance William you might like it.

          1. Brett Middleton

            But, you must admit he did it concisely. Perhaps scatology is the price. Beware of what you wish for …

            1. SHG Post author

              Concise is only part of the promise. Cogent, plus all the other rules by which we comment here, also applies.

  6. John Barleycorn

    ~~~Perhaps all our political problems would be solved if every candidate was handed exactly the same funding to use as they will.~~~
    Fuck that Brett! This here first amendment issue ain’t no molasses pie eating contest at the county fair.

    ~~~a significant portion of the adult american populace is currently incapable of critical thought~~~
    Your best take some time out of your busy PD schedule to start watching some more television Alex before your cynicism erodes you from the inside out and you are unable to detect the subtle genius in the order and nature of things today.

    ~~~it’s dark and smells weird in there~~~
    And even our own esteemed host getting all large and intestinal with sphincter citizen spite.

    You guys have to start getting out more and enjoying the ride before your next prostrate exam.

    I am kind of excited. Any day now I am expecting to hear a cool campaign spot from some carpet bagger reminiscing about how they are going to restore the sanctity of the game and give a twenty year federal income tax break to any club that builds a new park with a 450 left center fence. ‘Tis past time Americans learned how to enjoy a good Bathtub again.

  7. Matthew I

    “[…] money will be used to try to overcome our independent judgment.”

    For what it’s worth, most of the political science I’m aware of suggests that Diminishing Returns is one of the main limits on PAC influence — although ad blitzes are great at bringing “dark horse” candidates into the spotlight, as a candidate becomes more well-known ad effectiveness tends to drop. As a result, it’s very hard to buy elections. Linda McMahon’s 2010 senate campaign is a particularly extreme example — despite investing the staggering sum of $50 million dollars (about $25 per constituent!) she lost by quite a bit.

    1. SHG Post author

      Whether McMahon’s loss is evidence of diminishing returns or the fact that money can’t always buy an election, no matter what the association to wrestling, is unclear. In any event, it does demonstrate that we are not slaves to the best financed campaign.

  8. a-PcP-p AKA John Barleycorn

    Oh yeah…I must faithfully amend and damn the resolute intent of exposing exceptions to the resolution.

    It did slip my mind of resin that;

    Every time you misspell the name of a Disney character, agent Pontificating cunt Politic perhaps (a-PcP-p) gets free reign with the definition of concise and is granted one retort at Barleycorn’s discretion within the 10-46 half hour life of
    phencyclidine as it is or is not know today.

    ‘Tinkerbell’ is not ‘Tinker Bell’. Regardless of context.

    There is a gentleman who has written a few books that I take exception to within the margins but not the footnotes. His more recent works as a journalist and author have disappointed me.

    However, William Greider’s Secrets of the Temple and Who Will Tell The People are both worth the read.

    The former is a sharp and poignant tomb. Inclusive of Interesting times and literal living modern-day players, humans, and choices that will not die by “their” own “will”.

    Relevant to your financial bed time prayers… One and all, even you ‘young ones best pay particular attention to the folly and power perhaps?

    The latter book is relevant to this post.

    It doesn’t necessarily autopsy the money in politics (it does in the author’s voice).

    Through any filter it does an even more exemplary and craftsmanship orientated job of quantifying the objective of all the money in politics and how “the” money plays amongst the sane.

    Which, coincidentally has been and still is a fulcrum of tension regardless of this 4-1-4 decision. This is no stillborn child.

    Greider nearly runs the table while pocketing the parameters and hauling concrete for the never ending slightly adjusting “goal posts”.

    What is even considered acceptable conversation let alone debatable is the power.

    Perhaps even defining the parameters of what is and what is not an “acceptable” conflict for the Supremes to entertain.

    This is how money manipulates politic. It’s isn’ts aren’t free but very, very effective speech. Open to one and open to all.

    I would suppose I am singing in he choir. Well worth the Disney if not.

    Has… as, been pointed out between the cynical exaggerations and reality in the comments this far, and by our esteemed host’s ten dollar whore example (For those of you who have ever called a representative whom is with a staff. Trust me there is a list).

    The boogie man ain’t coming.

    Nor is the populace numb.

    Within the halls of power the gavel counts, arcane hierarchy rules, and the spoils multiply.

    Blah, blah, blah. The “elected” blind, deaf, and mute; see, hear, and speak within the parameters of the “funded” goal post only.

    The unspoken drop kick perhps.

    Everything else is a blood sport, a “sporting” event even.

    The legal tri-fecta that can’t lose, some may call it the deep sleep, some may call it necessary.

    Who gives a shit if you are living through it and thinking.

    Fuck-the-fucking-fuckers. Who really cares? Beware and be vocal of any inconstant compass readings though. Do your part.

    It is what it is.

    Politics is a vice of cowards and kings. Laws are of men.

    I welcome this division and decision by the court and I hope the court grants themselves the courage to displace other fanciful “limits” that have been foisted on the first amendment.
    May they broaden their rulings even further with the inclusions and definitions of speech in the future.

        1. SHG Post author

          I might consider it if you provided a cool quote by Thomas Jefferson like you do for more august blawgers, but otherwise, no.

          1. John Barleycorn


            The Judge is just a judge.

            Shame on you for not taking his low hanging bait for a lip twirl.

            I am clean hands up avoidance instigation.

          2. william doriss

            Since I get only one peremptory challenge per diem, as opposed to Barleycorny’s half dozen, let me announce that we shall not waste our time engaging in this barnyard silliness. Clearly, BarleyCornucopia has too much time on his hands. His cup runneth over. His parents spared the rod once too often. Perhaps too many “gateway” drugs leading to Lost in a Lost World cinema re-enactments, starring marquee idols of yore.
            We are in mourning this week. A lawyer we know has passed away. He was a big fan of the Koch brothers. Old lawyers never die, they just lose their “appeal”. No time for silliness. Money and politics don’t mix; or maybe they mix too well. That is the issue.

  9. Turk

    The solution to the corruption of vast quantities of money in the electoral process is to provide sufficient public matching funds for small donors, thus partly leveling the playing field as between rich and not-so-rich.

    And that likewise moots the First Amendment issues. Because a candidate can elect to accept matching funds along with campaign limits, or go it alone.

    NYC does this with 6:1 matching for any amount up to $175.

    The increase in expenditure should be more than offset by the decrease in pork and perks that get requested by the rich.

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