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Citizens United Protected Free Speech, Not the GOP

The one-year anniversary of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision is being treated in some quarters as a Republican triumph. According to this reading, the ruling that invalidated legislation that unconstitutionally attempted to restrict the political speech of groups was strictly a partisan affair. In this version of reality, the upshot of the 2010 election was that Republican and conservative organizations were freed up by the High Court’s spiking of provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill and therefore coasted to victory last November. Thus the spin today is that since the Democrats have no chance of undoing the Court’s decision via legislation, they must now retool their fundraising operations to adjust to the post–Citizens United world.

But this interpretation is entirely fallacious. Conservatives have historically opposed restrictive campaign-finance laws because they believed that attempts to silence political speech, such as the documentary film about Hilary Clinton that was at the heart of Citizens United, was inherently illegitimate. Campaign-finance “reform” laws have never, as their authors claim, eliminated the role of money in politics. But they did play favorites as to which kind of money was legal. Such good laws are good for incumbent politicians because they stifle challengers, and great for media companies, which are free to spout their views about candidates on their editorial pages and, alas, in their news columns as well, while restricting the right of others to purchase the same freedom.

But the main point here is that the focus on Citizens United allows liberals to engage in conspiracy theories about why they lost the last election rather than face up to the fact that the grassroots uprising against the policies of the Obama administration is what accounted for the GOP landslide victory in the congressional elections, not the money that some conservative groups were allowed to spend last year.

While Citizens United overturned regulations that were more likely to handicap conservative pro-business groups rather than liberal ones such as unions, the free flow of money in campaigns doesn’t necessarily mean either side will have an advantage in the future. Just as the Obama campaign broke records in 2008 by harnessing the enthusiasm of liberals, the lack of draconian regulations intended to silence free speech in the future will be no hindrance to the Democrats if they can manage to appear as the party with the answers again. That’s the thing about free speech: it allows the sentiments of the people, whether the pendulum has swung to the left or to the right, to be heard.

The Court’s verdict one year ago will continue to be felt not in terms of who wins the election in 2012 or any other year but in the ability of ordinary Americans to band together to speak out on the issues and the candidates. While at the moment that does not appear to appeal to many Democrats, it is the essence of democracy.