The recent 5-4 decision by the United States Supreme Court in a case brought before them through the intervention of a group known as Citizens United has created a major sensation on the American political scene. It joins other landmark cases such as Roe Versus Wade and Brown Versus School Board in its making of waves, and some commentators have even dipped into the deep past and likened it to the Dred Scott case on slavery prior to the Civil War and Plessy Versus Ferguson on segregation after 1865.
What the Supreme Court decided by a one vote margin was that money equaled free speech and its use could not be curtailed by State laws during elections. To the dissenters, this meant that elections in America now could be legally “bought.”
So what do we know about this group that successfully challenged spending limits on the amount that individuals (which include corporations and labor unions) can use to support candidates who, from their point of view, if elected, will favor their donors in the passage of legislation?
David Bossie is not a name known to most Americans. For the past decade, the Massachusetts native has been President and Chairman of an outfit that Wikipedia describes as “a conservative advocacy organization.” He apparently first surfaced during a CBS investigative report on “dirty tricks” in connection with harassment of the family of a young woman in Arkansas who committed suicide – an action that was said to have been inspired by an alleged affair with President Bill Clinton. Next Bossie, in Washington, D.C., was involved in the exposing the Clintons’ ties to the so-called Whitewater scandal. Working for Indiana Congressman, Dan Burton , Chairman of the House Committee investigating the Arkansas land deal gone sour, Bossie was actually fired for having tampered with various documents and recordings.
As an author, Bossie’s work is predictably right-wing and includes attacks on John Kerry, Hilary Clinton and Al Gore. He has also made slanted movies – one of which attributes the 2008 financial plunge not to the manipulations of Wall Street, but to “the selfishness of the Baby Boomer generation.”
Citizens United reached the zenith of its political effectiveness when its challenge to expenditure reached the U.S Supreme Court. The landmark 5-4 decision in the case of Citizens United Versus Federal Election Commission resulted in a prevailing opinion that the First Amendment to the Constitution does not allow government to put restrictions on political messages by corporations and labor unions. Citizens United brought their suit because it wanted to advertise a film it had made attacking Hillary Clinton in apparent violation of the Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Act ( McCain-Feingold) passed in 2002. That law would have prevented the film from being shown on TV within 30 days of the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primaries, in which Hillary Clinton was a candidate.
Rather unnoticed in all of the commotion caused by the ruling was the fact that the Court’s fiat did not undo requirements in any of these political ads for “disclaimers and disclosures” by the sponsors.
Thus, jumping ahead to 2011 and the November 11th vote in Ohio to overturn that State Legislature’s passage of bill to end collective bargaining for public workers, Citizens United weighed in with a six figure donation -$100,000 to play a 30 second TV spot. David Bossie openly announced this donation from this group, but there was no mention of who had really paid for it. The circumstances brought a response from the pro-workers coalition that Citizens United’s move was “a desperate attempt by another shadowy out-of-State group that refuses to disclose the source of its money.”
Citizens United’s infusion of cash, however, did not have the desired effect. By a whopping 60-40 margin, the Ohio Republicans anti-worker, anti-middle class legislation was defeated.
While it is obvious that the untraceable six figure donation by the Citizens United organization did not succeed in buying the Ohio election, the same may not be true in future cases. Money needed for campaigns had already surged to hitherto unimaginable heights and consumes most candidates for major office. The media already categorizes those who enter the political arena as viable (if they can raise money) or non-viable (if they cannot). Public disgust with elected officials directly follows out of such buying and selling of political favors. Note that only 9 percent of the electorate approves of Congress.
The Citizen United’s verdict only exacerbates the problem. If money is free speech, then our democracy as we have known it will be eventually doomed. One can bet that Citizens United is funded by the top 1 percent of the richest Americans who now will be able to use their wealth to influence elections more easily – one could even say “freely” – in buying more privileges for themselves. Their attempts, through will’o’the wisps nostrums like 9-9-9 or the Texas Flat Tax, to garner for the rich ever more of an unbalanced chunk of the national fiscal pie, do follow a twisted path back into America’s past to the pre-Revolutionary Tory aristocracy against which we revolted.
Even now, efforts are under way to counteract this blow to our American liberties by working for an amendment to the Constitution to undo this injustice. We have been there before with other horrid Supreme Court decisions, for example when a pro-slavery U.S. Supreme Court majority declared that a slave was always a slave, even in a free State, or that “separate” meant “equal” when it so clearly didn’t.
In those earlier cases, we Americans eventually “overcame.” Hopefully, we will bestir ourselves to do so once again.