One of the big themes in this year’s elections is Americans’ anger at their government, their feeling that it represents interests other than those of the people who voted them into power. But today’s United States Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC is going to make it easier for those other interests to influence elections and politicians, and hence harder to bring real change to government.
The Court ruled by a 5-4 margin that the law can’t distinguish between corporations and individuals in prohibiting speech, and that the same free speech protections that apply to individuals must also apply to corporations, labor unions and other organizations. The decision overturned a 1990 ruling that the government can prohibit corporations from spending money on ads that urge the election or defeat of a political candidate, and overturned a key provision of the McCain-Feingold Act. The decision was split on political lines – the court’s five conservative justices (Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy) were for the majority, while the four liberal justices (Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) were for the minority.
I have written a number of times on here about the potential for political novices and outsiders, with little or no ties to the national political establishment, to make noise in this year’s elections. The rallying cry of throwing out the bums who pay lip service to constituents when re-election time comes around but otherwise only care about corporations, labor unions and other interest groups could really resonate this year.
But today’s ruling means that those corporations will now be able to produce and run ads that support – either directly or indirectly – the candidate(s) who do their bidding. Those ads will make it harder for outsider candidates to make their message heard.
This country’s political system already makes it hard for non-establishment candidates to compete. And if you’re a third-party candidate, it’s pretty much impossible, especially in statewide or Federal elections. No third-party candidate has won a U.S. Senate seat since 1970 (Joe Lieberman was technically an independent when he won re-election in 2006, but he ran in that year’s Democratic Primary). And only one – Jesse Ventura in Minnesota in 1998 – has won a Gubernatorial election in the last 30 years. You usually need to be very wealthy – and willing to invest VAST amounts of that wealth – to even have a chance. And even then, all you’re likely to do is play spoiler, as Ross Perot did for George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Ralph Nader did for Al Gore in 2000.
This ruling makes those already-long odds that much longer. And it makes it much harder for disgruntled voters like the ones who will go to the polls this year bring real change to our government.