Since the landmark Citizens United decision issued by the Supreme Court in 2010, liberals have been claiming that the ruling would more or less end democracy as we know it. Their fear-mongering on the issue was based on the assumption that freeing up the ability of individuals, groups and businesses to fund political speech would guarantee that money would decide all future elections. That conclusion was patent nonsense. Neither political party has an inherent advantage in raising money, since both have large affluent bases from which to draw funds. But even more important is the fact that while money is essential to giving a candidate a chance, it is by no means a decisive factor in determining the outcome.
These two facts were proved true again this past Tuesday. It is true that Mitt Romney’s defeat was a blow to the big Republican donors who contributed vast sums to help his cause. But as much as the New York Times was able to crow in an editorial published yesterday that the outcome was “A Landslide Loss for Big Money” by which they meant big Republican money, it can just as easily be represented as a win for the big liberal money raised by the Democrats. While the cacophony of competing claims made possible by the approximately $1 billion spent by both parties wasn’t the most edifying spectacle, it did give each ample opportunity to make their cases to the voters. There is nothing corrupt about the free flow of political speech, even in an election as nasty as the one that has just concluded. All that Citizens United did was to make it possible for the competitors’ voices to be heard. That is the essence of democracy and why calls for more efforts to restrict free speech via new, and undoubtedly unconstitutional, campaign finance laws (such as those advocated by the Times) should be ignored.
Liberals intent on demonizing conservative donors seem to forget that the president was able to raise hundreds of millions from their own cadre of rich backers. The Democrats raised money from Hollywood or those who seek to enrich themselves via “green” alternative energy companies, just as others did for Romney. Yet there is nothing wrong with these liberals or their labor union allies using the vast sums at their disposal to promote their ideas and favorite candidates any more than when conservatives do the same things.
Rather than draw the only logical conclusion from Obama’s win and to pipe down about the evils of money in politics, the ideologues at the Times are undeterred. Laws such as the disastrous McCain-Feingold legislation that was largely overturned by Citizens United, or any of its equally unsuccessful predecessors, only serve to strengthen the position of incumbents and to reassert the power of mainstream media outlets like the Times, whose right to political speech is protected by the First Amendment.
What all this money bought may not be pretty or even decorous but it is not corrupt. Nor should the government seek to restrain it in the hope of elevating our political life.
As the Times rightly asserted, a deluge of expensive campaign ads on television didn’t affect the race as much as effective get-out-the-vote efforts by Democrats. That was a point reinforced by the disastrously inefficient, yet no less expensive scheme of the Republicans to do the same thing. Perhaps in the future both sides ought to ponder whether television ads that enrich broadcast outlets and the political consultants who urge candidates to buy them, but sometimes provide little political payoff, are worth it. But to say that is not agree that they ought to be restricted or banned. This year proved what virtually every other election has always shown those who were willing to look honestly at the question. Though money is needed to create a viable campaign, it can’t buy the presidency.
What we had in 2012 was a bellyful of democracy. Some of us may not like what it bought us, but schemes to limit political speech won’t make the system any more fair or honest.