I’m not sure if he’s right or not, but he makes an interesting argument. Dave Weigel is an excellent political reporter who’s spent a lot of time chronicling the conservative movement. Today at Slate he makes the provocative argument—it was to me, anyway—that the political action committees fostered by the U. S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decisionare a good thing, that they have been a force to strengthen democracy and have made this year’s Republican presidential contest fairer.
Huh? No, no, no, wait a minute: Citizens United is an evil thing, a twisted interpretation of dictionary English by the conservative members of the court so that now the godless, faceless corporations are considered “persons” for the purposes of political participation, and they can secretly donate as much of their giant piles of money as they like to PACs and buy elections and marginalize the little guy like me (I was going to say you and me, but I really shouldn’t presume to speak for you, should I?)…it’s already happened starting in Iowa this year, right? I mean, that’s what we’ve all been told, right?
But Weigel argues that the super PACs have had a leveling effect: the big money from super PACs is all that’s kept Mitt Romney from outspending his opponents into submission, and essentially buying the GOP nomination. And despite the concerns about the secretive nature of the super PACs, he notes that we seem to know more about the biggest of the big donors to super PACs than we do about the people making direct donations to the individual candidates’ campaigns. He writes, “The big fear about campaign money is that it corrupts the candidates who have to beg for it.”
But that worry applies better to the shadowy bundler than it does to the megabucks super PAC donor. Corruption can’t grow in the sunlight. The people giving big to super PACs are famous. I didn’t fully understand how famous until I tagged along with [Newt] Gingrich at a speech to Aloma Baptist Church in Florida, when a parishioner asked him to explain why he was taking dirty money from the gambling industry. Gingrich explained that he and [Sheldon] Adelson had a simpatico, guns-a-blazin’ view on Israel. Is it corruption if the candidate tells you what he’ll do for the donor?
We know more about those guys than we know about the bundlers, who’ve been passing money under the table for years. So which of those systems is worse for our democracy?
I know what’s good for our democracy: satire and ridicule, and in the case of Citizens United it’s been coming most effectively from Stephen Colbert. The Comedy Central comedian started his own super PAC and has been using it to expose the ridiculous reality resulting from the court’s ruling.
The line between entertainment and the court blurred even further late last month when Colbert had former Justice John Paul Stevens on his show to discuss his dissent in Citizens United. When a 91-year-old former justice is patiently explaining to a comedian that corporations are not people, it’s clear that everything about the majority opinion has been reduced to a punch line.
The court fights aren’t over, and perhaps the coolest one is in Montana where the state supreme court has told the one in Washington to pound sand. The court voted 5-2 to uphold the constitutionality of Montana’s ban on corporate campaign contributions, finding justification for the ban that Citizens United does not consider. Beyond that, Justice James Nelson unloaded: “Corporations are not persons. Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people—human beings—to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government.” And that from one of the two dissenters in the ruling!
More fundamentally, the majority and one dissenter seem to understand perfectly how much the American people resent being lied to about the burning need for courts to step in to protect the oppressed voices of powerless corporate interests. As Judge Nelson wrote in dissent, “the notion that corporations are disadvantaged in the political realm is unbelievable. Indeed, it has astounded most Americans. The truth is that corporations wield enormous power in Congress and in state legislatures. It is hard to tell where government ends and corporate America begins: the transition is seamless and overlapping.”