This year’s election will be the most costly in US history. It is speculated that 2.5 billion will be spent on the presidential race and 1 billion on house and senate races. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision is cited for this recent surge in cash. The ruling identifies political money as a form of free speech, which should be minimally regulated. Further, it gives corporations and unions the right to spend unlimited amounts on political speech as long as they do not coordinate with campaigns—this has increased the number of political ads, particularly negative ones.
The arguments for and against the Citizens United decision are framed in terms of freedom of speech versus fairness. The influence of money on democratic decision-making is a perennial problem, as Montanans know from our colorful history with the copper kings. Democratic societies either do better or worse at maintaining a balance between money, political speech and fair elections though ethics, policies and laws. A recent article from the Carnegie Councils’ Global Ethics Forum asks: Does the new influx of cash make the electoral process less fair? Or does it strengthen democracy, by making elections freer?
The effects of wealth on political speech in corrupting democratic decision-making were present in the world’s first democracy in ancient Athens. Political speech is a form of power and rich Athenians quickly figured out ways to use their wealth to enhance their power. If a citizen was particularly good at persuasive public speaking, he could stand-up in the assembly and convince his fellow citizens to vote for his favored laws and policies. Some wealthy Athenians took advantage of this situation and hired clever teachers of rhetoric, sophists, to train their sons in the art persuasive public speaking. Only the very rich could afford the best teachers. Once trained in rhetoric, these young men were expected to use their skills to advance the private interests of their families and class. The comic playwright, Aristophanes, satirized the corrupting affect of these teachers in his political comedy, The Clouds. In the play a wealthy Athenian send his son to The Thinkery, where he learns to make unjust arguments sound just in order to manipulate legal and political processes. But this education morally corrupts the young man, causing him to flagrantly disregard accepted morality. In the last act of the play, an angry mob burns down The Thinkery.
The comedian Stephen Colbert has become a sort of has modern-day Aristophanes by satirizing the brave new world created by the Citizens United decision. Over the last year he has guided his viewers through the dark labyrinth of campaign finance. He began by creating his own super PAC, “Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow,” so, as he puts it: the “Colbert Nation could have a voice, in the form of [his] voice, shouted through a megaphone made of cash…” Colbert’s stunts pointed out numerous potential problems with campaign finance, from media exemptions to anonymous donations, but his most important deals with the non-coordination rule between super PACs and campaigns. One of the main arguments supporting minimum regulations on money in campaigns is that expenditures on political speech made by corporations, unions or individuals cannot corrupt the election process as long as they are made independently of election campaigns. Colbert mocks this argument by demonstrating how easily this rule is flaunted. One commentator asserts, that super PACs are functioning “as a de facto arm of the campaigns, using funds that would be illegal if given directly to the candidate.” In a skit, when Colbert decides to explore running for “the President of South Carolina” he has to relinquish control of his super PAC. He turns it over to his friend and collaborator John Stewart. It is renamed, “The Definitely Not Coordinated with Stephen Colbert Super PAC.” The relationship between Colbert and Stewart is seemingly paralleled in relationships between the heads of super PACs and various candidates. Many of the people leading the pro-Romney and pro-Obama super PACs have worked closely with these candidates. The ease at which campaigns and super PACs might coordinate will likely to be an important and controversial factor in this year’s election.
Democracies perpetually face the problem of the balance between money, free speech and fairness. Has the Citizens United decision made elections freer or less fair? It will be interesting to watch this election and see what answers emerge. So far, the decision has greatly increased the sources and flow of cash into elections. And, Greek and Montana history have shown that wealthy vested interests have used their money to unfairly amplify their political speech to pursue private ends at the expense of public goods. Finally, one thing to notice is how easy it was for Colbert to mock the consequences of the Citizens United decision. It seemed like he was shooting fish in a barrel.