Understanding the Citizens United Decision (UPDATE)

by Bryan

So I’ve done quite a bit of reading on the Supreme Court decision to lift the ban on corporate donations to campaigns, and I have an honest question: What’s the enormous fuss about? Keith Olbermann asked on the show tonight if it was the end of American democracy. I think that is, to put it mildly, an overstatement of whatever point he’s trying to make. Elections are already bought and sold to an absurd extent, and for this to push the situation far over the line, to me, seriously underestimates how bad it is now. How much worse can it get? How good were the rules that were stopping corporations from making donations in the past?

I’m not asking to antagonize; I honestly want to know.

What I do know is that to suggest that the Supreme Court decision rooted in First Amendment principles and suggest that it signals the end of American democracy is to almost certainly obscure the point with rhetoric. The Supreme Court is not perfect, and I’m not claiming it is. I just don’t see how the future is going to look that markedly different from the past. The Times says it’ll go like this:

If you vote wrong, a lobbyist can now tell any elected official that my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election.

“We have got a million we can spend advertising for you or against you — whichever one you want,’ ” a lobbyist can tell lawmakers.

What in God’s name do you think lobbyists were doing before?

The central concern of Democrats seems to be that Republicans are on the side of big corporations, so this favors them. That may be true, but that’s not ever going to change. The solution isn’t to attempt to cap the Republican institutions, but to build up those favorable to Democratic ones. Do you think the Republicans give a flying f*ck that the Unions model has crumbled? No! It’s not a even fight, but the Constitution doesn’t guarantee an even fight, it guarantees a fair one. For a group that’s spent the last year complaining (correctly) that the GOP politicizes everything, the Democrats seemed to have wasted no time politicizing this.

Now, do I think that Congress should fight against this, as President Obama has urged? Sure, but I see it as a band-aid, not a permanent fix. Democrats emboldened by the righteousness of their cause have to remember that no one gives a sh!t about their cause, and that America always has, and always will, run on money. You want to fight the GOP? Get your institutions to work. You have the right institutions to make this happen. The GOP is the military party, the party of big oil and the health care companies. The first is unlikely to change, just as the Democrats will likely forever remain the party of the intellectual aristocracy (and never, ever underestimate the higher education infrastructure we have in this country). The health care thing we’re working on. Big oil? Big oil is a dinosaur. It’s going away, if not tomorrow or next year, in the next 10 years, and Democrats are on the right side. Own green technology and restructure unions to make them an attractive option—and do it before the Republicans try—and you own the future.

All this is easier said than done, I know, but please don’t tell me that the Supreme Court decision is unfair because it favors one side. That falls directly into the narrative of “Who won today?” versus “What happened today?” that our President spoke against at Walter Cronkite’s funeral. I don’t want to know why the GOP won or lost; I want to know how I won or lost. As of now, I don’t see what I lost. The system is the system, and whether you think it’s ridiculous, great, or abhorrent, it’ll now be any or all of those things and transparent. I want to know what’s happening in my country so I can make better choices. I don’t mind a free-for-all if I get to see it unfold.

That’s my instinct, at least. Am I wrong?

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald wrote basically the exact same thing — with more words, and far more detail — in his post today. Also: Moacir, who told me about it.