Commentary Magazine


What Liberals Learn From Citizens United

For the past three years, liberals and Democrats have bemoaned the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that invalidated parts of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that prevented groups and individuals from using money to advocate on issues and elections. Their lament has portrayed the ruling as the end of American democracy since it will lead in their view to the moneyed classes and big businesses buying all elections and dooming worthy progressives and their causes to perpetual defeat. But if the successes of Democrats in raising money to finance pro-Obama advocacy groups that successfully trashed the reputations of Republicans like Mitt Romney didn’t convince the left that Citizens United was actually the best thing that could have happened to them, then today’s story in Politico that details how liberal groups are beating conservatives like a drum in the competition to raise money for non-party groups ought to.

As Politico reports, super PACs backing Democrats in prospective 2014 and 2016 races have decisively outraised Republican groups in the first half of the year. There are a number of reasons for this, the chief of which is the way the 2012 results discouraged conservatives. But leaving aside the significance of the tactical advantage the incumbent party and its cheering section have gained this year, the real story is the way this illustrates the wisdom of the Citizens United ruling. Rather than creating a system that would undermine democratic discourse, the court’s reassertion of the right to free speech has opened up a free market of ideas that has made American democracy even more robust. Though the GOP may not be happy about the current fundraising numbers, the ability of liberals to use the law to raise money to advocate for their point of view shows just how wrongheaded their opposition to the ruling has been.

McCain-Feingold and every other campaign finance restriction that has been passed since Watergate was based on the assumption that money corrupts politics and the less spent on campaigns and issues the better off the republic was. However, none of the rules actually drove money out of politics. All it did was to make it harder for parties to spend as they always had done and to cause political operatives to create new vehicles for spending and advocacy. The laws primarily served as an incumbent protection program since challengers always find it harder to raise money and gain awareness for their issues. But they also served the purpose of restricting the one kind of activity that the founders most wanted to protect: political speech. Since the only way most people or groups have of making their voices heard is to purchase air time or via other forms of mass communication, the ability to raise and spend money is vital to create an atmosphere of free discourse.

That is exactly what Citizens United accomplished. The result is a public square that is often more chaotic than some would like. But if liberals had their way and campaign finance was solely the province of the government as it doled out small amounts to candidates, what we would have is an America where only a few could effectively speak out. It would also allow the mainstream media—whose political advocacy is constitutionally protected—a near monopoly on the debate. Some liberals may lament that aspect of the court’s reforms, but surely even they understand that such a system isn’t healthy for any democracy.

The post-Citizens United world is one in which conservatives are free to speak up for their issues and liberals can do the same. That means liberals must stomach conservative advocacy trashing President Obama’s programs and Democrats in hyperbolic terms while conservatives must endure paeans to ObamaCare and character assassination of Republican candidates. That can make this messy and doesn’t always encourage civility. But it is also a place where free speech of all kinds flourishes.

More free speech doesn’t give either party or ideological grouping any natural edge. What it does do is to open the floodgates for all comers. The last two years should have shown liberals that a free marketplace of ideas is just as likely to help them as to hurt them. Money isn’t evil, it’s just a tool that enables more communication. Unless their goal is to suppress speech—something that conservatives and media critics suspect—they should stop inveighing against Citizens United and simply enjoy the benefits and the drawbacks of life in a country where free speech is protected by the courts.

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