Citizens Divided

I know I’ve been talking about serious topics like rape, politics, rape and politics, vaginas and domestic violence a lot lately. Those of you cruising for my typical shenaniganny carryings-on are like to be disappoint by yet another post on serious business, but I think it’s good to use the goop in our brainpans for something thought-provoking once in a while.

This is yet another post on the state of American politics. It still applies to those of you in countries that are not this one, since it will knowledge you on what to avoid in your own sovereign nations. Plus, I’m pretty sure that America still thinks it’s king of the hill and will waterboard any of you who disagree. For the benefit of those of you who have no idea what Citizens United is (I’ll give you a pass if you live in another country), I’ll give a little rundown.

In 2010, the United States Supreme Court decided that corporations are people. In the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions.

Basically, what that means is that corporations can donate money to what are now called Super-PACs and 501(c)(4)s. Super PACs (Political Action Committees) are not allowed to directly contribute to candidate campaigns or parties, but they are allowed unlimited political spending independently of the campaigns. Unlike traditional PACs, they can raise funds from corporations, unions and other groups, and from individuals, without legal limits.

If you think that sounds like a terrible idea, wait until you hear about the 501Cs. 501Cs are tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. 501(c)(4) organizations may lobby for legislation, and participate in political campaigns and elections. 501(c)(4) organizations are not required to disclose their donors publicly.

The lack of disclosure has led to extensive use of the 501(c)(4) provisions for organizations that are actively involved in lobbying. Criticized as “dark money,” spending from these organizations on political TV ads has exceeded spending from Super PACs. (All of that information is on the Citizens United wiki I linked above. Sources are listed there.)

Justice Stevens wrote the dissenting opinion for the Supreme Court. In it, he said, “The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.”

I cannot agree with Justice Stevens more. In fact, I agree with everything he said in his dissenting opinion. It is full of legalese, but it has gems like this: “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.” I’d recommend reading it if you want to know every single way that Citizens United backed up the U.S. Constitution, bend it over and straight-up gang raped it.

Jean Paul Stevens. This man deserves a superhero cape. (Image from wiki)

Steven’s points an accusatory finger at the justices who approved of this constitutional butchery: “Essentially, five Justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”  “The problem goes still deeper, for the Court does all of this on the basis of pure speculation.” “Faced with this gaping empirical hole, the majority throws up its hands.” “The majority has transgressed yet another ‘cardinal’ principle of the judicial process.”

The opinion is chock full of ostensibly polite, but really not very nice phrases calling out the majority for changing law to suit themselves. In other words, Stevens, along with Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor who also signed the dissenting opinion, thought that the majority were idiots, and like me, hinted that Citizens United was the worst thing to ever happen to modern American politics.

Essentially, what Citizens United did was to allow individuals, corporations and unions to spend billions of dollars to try to buy elections. Not only that, but it allowed them to do it anonymously.

On a side note, Stevens is my personal hero for using the phrase “gaping empirical hole” in a Supreme Court opinion.

2012 was the first major election to have Citizens United in effect. There are countless editorials and tons of data out there on how Citizens United effected or to be more precise, didn’t effect, the 2012 elections as much as we had feared. A lot of political pundits say that it was a boy-who-cried-wolf situation. All those anonymous millions donated by billionaires and corporations didn’t quite have the rousing effect they had hoped. Karl Rove’s billion dollar Super PACs didn’t swing the election.

Here in California, an $11 million donation from an obscure Arizona nonprofit, which was intended to influence the passage of an anti-union measure, didn’t sway voters. In fact, when the California PAC in question refused to provide detail on their out-of-state donors in time for the election, it ended up working against them. The outcomes the PAC was pushing for failed to materialize. As it turns out, the $11 million donation came from The Koch brothers (or as I like to pronounce it, The COCK Brothers), billionaire, surreptitious, entitled-asshole Republicans who don’t even live in California but were trying to swing California voters against unions anyway.

The fact that Citizens United didn’t manage to buy the resounding wholesale election purchase that the conservatives hoped it would doesn’t mean that we won. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still be vigilant. That CU turned out to be such a gaping financial hole for conservatives and big business is almost scarier to me than if CU had succeeded the way they bought it intended it to.

First, because it failed to buy the election, it means that there won’t be a public outcry at its unconstitutional-i-ness. The Citizens United decision will not be challenged. That awful Supreme Court decision will remain on the books. People will forget about it. It will masquerade as a sheep, until one day, it shows its fangs and kills American democracy. Just because it didn’t swing this election, that doesn’t mean it won’t swing others.

Second, at least the CU decision, as wrong and unconstitutional as it is, was common knowledge. The failure of CU to buy elections means that, next time around, the conservatives and corporations might have to invent some new unconstitutional chicanery to try to buy elections. Next time, it might not be so in our faces. It might be won with backroom handshakes and legalese loopholes without the general public even knowing about it. The fact that we took them on face to face and won doesn’t mean they will quietly admit defeat. Scary, scary shit is afoot and our constitution is still under attack. Caveat emptor.

Today’s Prompt: Link to an item in the news you’ve been thinking about lately, and write the op-ed you’d like to see published on the topic.