Citizens United has become an all-purpose whipping boy for political outcomes disliked by liberals. Critics of the Supreme Court’s decision complain that democracy is undermined when corporations are free to spend huge amounts to influence leaders and elections, benefiting the rich at the expense of the 99%.
Even before Tuesday’s recall election in
critics were blaming the poll-predicted failure
on “outside” corporate money flooding the state with TV commercials defending Republican
Governor Scott Walker. Wisconsin
The Court’s decision in Citizens United was not, however, unreasonable. It took literally the First Amendment’s command that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” It ruled as proposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, not a hotbed of conservative, corporate-friendly sentiments. It frees unions as well as corporations to spend money on political advocacy. And on many issues, big corporations can be found on both sides.
Elections are decided by voters, not by money. We have never had a president named Rockefeller or Perot. Citizens United does not change the fact that “the 99%” are potentially 99% of the voters, and that they could vote in their own interests if they took the time to inform themselves and to think seriously about candidates and issues.
Critics of Citizens United complain that voters can be manipulated. This is true for some voters some of the time. But to the extent that voters can be manipulated, overturning the Supreme Court’s decision would not improve matters. It would just disadvantage some fat cats to the benefit of other fat cats (like the corporate newspaper and TV chains, which were totally free to propagandize even before Citizens United was decided). If voters can be manipulated it doesn’t matter much who does the manipulating.
The true remedy to any problems that may have been created by Citizens United is for Americans to take citizenship seriously, to actively seek to inform themselves, and to learn how to think about political candidates and issues so that they cannot be manipulated by anybody.
People often assume that our problems are caused by bad leaders. Our present leaders do and say many stupid things, but this is not because they are stupid. Too often, it is because if they talked sense the voters wouldn’t stand for it and would throw them out at the next election.
If a substantial number of voters would spend an hour a day boning up on issues and learning how to think productively about politics, this would make it possible for leaders and potential leaders to talk sense and act wisely more of the time.
There was a famous sign on President Harry Truman’s desk: “The buck stops here.” This is true for presidential decisions during emergencies. But for many important decisions, Truman’s sign was misleading. The buck ultimately stops with our voters, not with our leaders. Our leaders are smarter than they currently can afford to act.