Liberals didn’t like the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that struck down federal limits on political speech from independent groups because they saw it as a the first step toward dismantling the campaign finance regulatory system that aimed to suppress political speech. They will be just as, if not more, unhappy with the court’s 5-4 ruling today in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that rightly held that federal caps on the amount of money individuals could give to candidates, parties, and PACs are unconstitutional.
But while we can expect to hear a chorus of condemnation of the court from the White House, liberal Democrats, and mainstream media pundits who will see this as opening the floodgates to corruption, the warnings that these rulings herald the end of democracy are false. What the court has done today is to reaffirm core constitutional principles that protect the rights of every American to participate in the political system. But just as importantly, by taking the next step toward dismantling a dysfunctional and deeply unfair regulatory system, the court has opened the way toward a saner manner of conducting elections. While all past efforts at “reform” of contributions had driven donors away from the candidates and political parties, the majority opinion in McCutcheon will begin the process of returning them to a central role in campaign finance. That will create a system that is more accountable and freer of overweening governmental regulation of speech. Instead of condemning this sweeping ruling, liberals should be joining conservatives in cheering a step back toward a saner manner of conducting elections.
For forty years liberals built a mountain of federal laws and regulations that sought to restrict the ability of individuals and groups to make their voices heard on political issues. The campaign finance reform movement was portrayed in the mainstream media as a high-minded force for good government. But the effort to rid politics of the scourge of money was as futile as it was counterproductive. Money is the mother’s milk of politics and the legal labyrinth created by the initial post-Watergate effort and its successors did nothing to curb corruption but it did make the system more and more unaccountable as the laws made it harder to give to individual candidates or political parties. The cumbersome apparatus of campaign finance law made it hard to comply with the law without legal specialists. But most damaging of all was the fact that the thrust of this body of legislation was aimed at suppressing political speech—the one type of activity that the Constitution most sought to protect from the government.
The court held today in McCutcheon that the right to contribute to campaigns is not absolute (Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the other members of 5-justice majority on this point). But, as Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out today in his ruling, the government “may not, however, regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”
The sordid truth at the heart of the campaign finance reform movement is that it has always been more about suppressing the free speech rights of individuals then about cleaning up government. There is no evidence the cap rules prevented corruption. But what they do accomplish is to make it harder to take down incumbents or to challenge the dominant voice of a mainstream media whose First Amendment rights to say what they like about candidates have rightly never been questioned.
Campaign finance laws never succeeded in driving money out of politics. But they have forced donors to resort to more indirect methods of financing candidates and causes they like, making the system less accountable. By removing such limits on donations to candidates and parties, the court will increase the influence of these institutions and allow more money to be put in the hands of those who are actually running the campaigns rather than outside groups. This will make elections more transparent and be good for democracy.
As they did with Citizens United, liberals will lament this ruling because it chips away further at the notion that government has a right to limit political speech. But, as Roberts said, “there is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our leaders.” Political donations are no different from any other kind of protected political speech. Allowing more speech, whether from conservatives or liberals, corporations or unions, won’t harm democracy; it enhances it. By ending the federal caps, the court has struck a blow for more freedom, not corruption.