(Image by Kip Lyall)
It’s rather predictable, and in that way perhaps more forgivable.
Who wouldn’t expect two of our more clever journo-bloggers (who, not incidentally, both could be described as libertarian-curious) to acquiesce to their more ignoble desires and pen contrarian takes on Citizens United‘s impact on the 2012 election? Indeed, as someone who is not paid for his keyboard tappings, but nevertheless feels compelled to find somewhat interesting things to write about during the campaign, I can understand how the Super PAC world has been a boon to many media scribes. It’s given us “King of Bain,” Foster Friess, Sheldon Adelson, and the spectacle of Romney as Sisyphus, rolling the GOP nomination inch-by-inch up the mountain.
Nevertheless, Will Wilkinson and Dave Weigel are very, very wrong. They’re wrong in the same way; and they’re wrong twice-over. They’re wrong about why some people think the effect of Citizens United is and will continue to be so negative. And they’re wrong when they say why they think it isn’t.
Their first mistake may be understandable, but it’s also an example of how we sometimes fail to give those with whom we disagree enough credit. Here’s how Wilkinson ventriloquizes:
The Citizens United decision, which spawned the superPAC, was hailed by some on the left as the death-knell of democracy [leading to] mega-bucks buying the election through a barrage of brainwashing TV spots.
Weigel characterizes anti-PACers similarly (though, to his credit, he provides quotes):
The super PAC critics aren’t [call them] rotten and unfair. In the words of Democracy Now producers, the PAC money comes from a “secretive coterie” of donors. In the terrific coinage of Mother Jones editors, it’s “dark money,” a Lovecraftian monster that moves from state to state, dissolving the foundations of the republic.
If Citizens United‘s critics were primarily or solely concerned with the prospect that Super PAC cash would lead to election results that would be different than they’d have been without the unleashing of monetized “speech,” I’d have no problem with depicting them as a flock of Chicken Littles. But I think Jane Mayer’s recent, superb New Yorker piece on the matter does a far more effective job in identifying the real specter now haunting the United States.
We’ve no longer only fear itself to fear; there’s cynicism, too:
Lawrence Lessig, the author of a new book on campaign finance, “Republic, Lost,” argues that the Court misunderstood the nature of corruption. A greater peril than obvious, quid-pro-quo bribes is posed by systemic corruption, he says, in which voters regard the whole system as rigged. And the Court, by eliminating almost all the curbs on outside money in elections, has given wealthy donors disproportionate political power, largely in the form of Super PACs and nonprofit advocacy groups.
There’s a first-order problem with Citizens United, one that rests on a first principles-styled objection rather than a more consequentialist critique. I subscribe to it. Simply put, it’s the idea that Foster Friess and Sheldon Adelson should not be able to wield such a grotesquely disproportionate influence over the democratic process. Not because they’ll become secret string-pullers, but simply because it’s unfair. (And as an aside, I believe both moneymen have proven themselves to be quite undeserving of being listened to — full-stop.)
But the second, consequentialist, argument against Citizens United sacrifices none of its power for its pragmatism. Because a Citizens United polity is one in which the vast majority of participants rightly feel themselves to be superfluous. And like a civic broken windows, the appearance of legitimacy is no second-order concern for a democracy. There is therefore a patent state interest in upholding the integrity of the political process, regardless of whether or not one is focused on the end-results of elections.
Americans were already deeply cynical about their politics, before Citizens United. But while there was once a means, however feint, to argue that the system is not a dull gloss over what is in essence an elaborate sporting event with dueling oligarchs jockeying over what amounts to most of us as minutiae, the Super PAC order of today renders that optimism not naïve but simply delusional. In the same way people know professional wrestling is fake — even if the role of “winner” is traded back-and-forth between dueling sides — voters will soon believe, if they don’t already, that American democracy is a sham.
It may continue to provide good copy for Wilkinson, Weigel, and me, but the Citizens United decision nevertheless remains, on the whole, a disaster.