By Will Swaim | Watchdog.org
Conservatives and libertarians looking for any signs of hope in the 2012 presidential election results, consider: liberal predictions of an apocalypse were wrong.
For nearly two years, liberals had predicted that massive corporate spending unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision would transform the political landscape.
But after spending a combined $6 billion — half of FEMA’s annual budget — Republicans and Democrats produced a federal government that looks remarkably like the one we had on Monday, Nov. 5.
Money, as our parents (maybe it was the Beatles) told us, can’t buy love.
In Citizens United, the Supreme Court affirmed that money is speech — and more famously that corporations with money are, well, people with free-speech rights. Therefore, the Court concluded, the government cannot restrict cash.
I’ve long been a proponent of campaign finance reform, believing with lots of others (especially but not exclusively on the left) that, as A.J. Liebling put it, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Or have access to it through cash.
That’s not just a liberal idea, of course: Sen. John McCain was co-author of the eponymous McCain-Feingold Act (a.k.a., The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002).
But it was liberals who figured they had the most to lose after Citizens United. Writing for the Supreme Court’s dissenters, Justice Stevens summarized liberal anxiety that politics had been suddenly reduced to a marketplace activity: “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”
In an Atlantic headline that pretty much said it all (“Thanks, Citizens United, for This Campaign Finance Mess We’re In”), Adam Skaggs said the decision was part of the Court’s “ongoing project to put our democracy up for auction.”
Identifying more partisan concerns, Matt Bai spoke for most of his cohort when he predicted last summer, “Conservative groups alone, including a super PAC led by Karl Rove and another group backed by the brothers Charles and David Koch, will likely spend more than a billion dollars trying to take down Barack Obama by the time November rolls around.”
They had some facts on their side. Looking at the gusher of cash promised in Citizens United, both presidential candidates skipped public funding of their campaigns. In return for leaving that taxpayer cash on the table, the candidates were also free to ignore government limits on fundraising. The New York Times predicted that would be the “death knell for a cornerstone of the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms intended to limit the influence of money in federal elections.”
How ironic is it that the real death knell for campaign finance reform might be Election Day 2012, a day on which we discovered the real limits of political giving?
“It appears from the overall results of the 2012 elections that the unleashing of corporate campaign contributions, predicted after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, did not come to pass, at least not in a way which dramatically impacted the outcomes of individual races,” political scientist Mark Petracca of the University of California, Irvine, told me.
This does not mean that money doesn’t matter. First, corporations give money pretty equally to the parties, and do so for one purpose: to buy access.
Then, too, the Citizens United decision that unleashed corporate cash similarly liberated union giving. And public-sector union cash is still the fuel that keeps lawmakers in office — and assures those officials will continue to vote for raises in union pay and benefits that are bankrupting my home state of California.
It’s also possible, of course, that some of the money poured into the political system was more strategic — that it was spent not for short-term tactical reasons in this cycle but to build long-term political capacities.
But it’s more likely that, contrary to common wisdom since 1989, merely building it doesn’t mean we’ll show up — that most American voters really are impervious to political advertising, for instance.
That doesn’t mean we voters are smarter than the advertisers; advertising clearly works — just ask the guy who added sleeves to a blanket with a hole in it. It means that, at some point, we can’t hear political messaging. We’re full. Brimming.
This phenomenon was probably best summed up long before the election. Speaking to a 2010 rally just a few months after the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, comedian Jon Stewart said, “If we amplify everything we hear nothing.”
There can be no doubt that Stewart was riffing off St. Paul, who in his first letter to the Corinthians observed, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
All that Citizens United money produced so much noise, so much empty clanging and gonging, that it — the money — bought nothing.
Or not nothing: one friend observed that in her Pinellas County, Fla. community, campaign spending boosted the fortunes of everyone from big media tycoons who sold TV and radio airtime, to the owners of pizza shops that fed campaign volunteers.
Hearing this, another friend said, “There’s your real stimulus program, right there.”
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