This is part of the Reuters series on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, handed down Jan. 21, 2010. After five years, is anything the same in U.S. elections? You can read other pieces in the series here.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United is five years old, which makes it the age of a kindergartner. By all signs the kid is a bully, making everything around him a little bit worse.
Political campaigns are more expensive. Voting has fallen to near historically low levels. Political messages grow simpler and more moronic. As the child grows, he promises to make things a whole lot worse.
Five years is a long time in American politics, but it is a relatively short time in U.S. history. The conflicts Citizens United has provoked around money in politics and political speech are important. But they are only skirmishes in two long-running and related battles.
The first has been over who gets to participate in American politics. The second is over who gets to frame the debate and be heard. For those who believe in widespread participation and vigorous and open debate, the news from either front is not good.
It would be a mistake to think that the arc of American history has been toward greater participation and freer speech. If there is a pattern, it is that at certain moments large numbers enter the political arena — think white manhood suffrage in the early 19th century’, the 15th Amendment, giving African-American men the vote in 1870 the 19th Amendment, giving women the vote in 1920 — and then the ebb tide sets in with restrictions that erode the gains.
Free speech has won great victories, but the ability to be heard in forums that matter has not seen similar advances. Citizens United claims to enlarge the boundaries of political speech. But its political impact has been to hand a sound system to a select few — while the rest of us are entitled to whisper.
The comparison of the early 21st century to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century has become a cliché — but clichés gain traction because they contain an element of truth.
Citizens United does bring to mind a moment in the late 1880s and early 1890s when U.S. politics changed. The change did not involve the sudden intervention of money into politics, but rather how money entered politics and how it became speech.
The easiest way to think about this is that in the 1890s what had been retail politics — local and face to face — became wholesale politics: centralized informational campaigns of brochures, standardized newspaper stories and uniform messages. Historians have characterized the switch as one from the so-called “army campaigns” of marches, rallies, picnics and demonstrations to the “educational campaigns” that depended on a literate electorate and pervasive print media.
Gilded Age politics was always corrupt. Before the 1890s, however, it was retail corruption. Corporations solicited “friends” among those already in office — the preferred means were favors and the sharing of financial information. When necessary — and it often was — they offered bribes.
Influencing elections was far more difficult. Before the direct election of senators, the politics of friendship and bribery worked only in persuading legislatures to choose U.S. senators who would serve corporate interests. Senator John Mitchell of Oregon, for example, proclaimed of Ben Holladay, the railroad tycoon, “Ben Holladay’s politics are my politics and what Ben Holladay wants I want.”
Most corporate friends tried to be more circumspect. But when — through the pairing of vanity and bad judgment – plutocrats like Leland Stanford of the Southern Pacific Railroad and William A. Clark, a notorious “copper king” of Montana, bought their own election as senators, the confusion of interests was harder to disguise.
The move to “educational” campaigns and the growing strength of national parties, which were far more than coalitions of state and local organizations, created new demands for money.
The money was chump change by today’s standards, but it was enough to require large donors. It represented a new form of corruption — quid pro quo. But it substituted favors to a political party for favors to a specific politician.
Henry Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents and author of the early 20th-century’s best-selling and most erudite memoir, was cynical and disengaged about politics – though well informed. He recognized the new relationship of the Gilded Age rich and politicians.
After the 1892 defeat of the Republican Benjamin Harrison by Grover Cleveland, Adams wondered why GOP money hadn’t been able to win out. He asked his friend John Hay, a well-connected Republican who had served as Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary and would later be Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state, what had happened to “McKinley money” — the money that Republican manufacturers reaped from the McKinley Tariff.
“Is it possible,” Adams wrote, “…that our Republican manufacturers, after pocketing the swag, refused to disgorge? If so, they’ll catch it.”
The spoils that Adams referred to were not to supply simple bribes. Instead, he was saying, the plutocrats should have used their wealth to fund Harrison’s presidential campaign. It would, in the language of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote for the majority in Citizens United, be laundered into speech.
At the turn of the 20thcentury, such money routinely came from robber barons. Getting those who benefited from government policies to “disgorge” became central to 20th-century politics — and limiting their ability to control the political process became central to the 20th-century reforms.
Since then, corporations — artificial persons — unions, political action committees and other organizations have both directly and indirectly replaced individual people as the leading sources of political funds.
In granting free speech rights to these artificial persons, the Supreme Court, in Citizens United, tossed out most of a half-century of election reform. More has followed.
Such developments make Adams sound both prescient and antique. Prescient because he understood the connection among money, “education,” or speech, and the financial benefits that flowed to those who financed and controlled speech. Adams is antique, though, because he thought that it was the political parties that were ultimately in control.
We have moved beyond that. For the time being, corporations and the rich who create Super PACs still cannot do without parties. But the time may come when Charles and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity can vet candidates on its own and use unlimited funds to “educate” the public to their virtues — all in the name of free speech.
Whatever else corporations are, they are not yet citizens — though, I am sure, in some fertile legal imagination this is a possible step. It may be an unnecessary step since it has been the perverse genius of the Roberts Court to facilitate corporate participation in politics while diminishing the role of living, breathing citizens.