Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. It was a 5-4 decision, and Justice Stevens authored a long and bitter dissent to the majority opinion.
The case began as a challenge to the financing of the film about Hillary Clinton during the last presidential election. The FEC questioned whether corporate sponsorship of the film constituted illegal political contributions. By last week, the Supreme Court had transformed the decision into a far more basic question: Are corporations’ political activities protected by the First Amendment so that governments cannot put limits on how much they spend on such things as films, videos, and advertising on political topics? (The case preserved limits on direct donations to candidates.) In last week’s decision, a majority of the Court answered in the affirmative.
Supporters of the decision hailed it as a victory for individual rights, although corporations are, in fact, not real people at all but fictive “persons” created by law. Critics saw the decision as opening the floodgates for unlimited corporate financial manipulation of the political process. To a large degree, the split was along party lines, Republicans supporting the decision and Democrats decrying it.
In my own opinion, the decision seems more than a bit shaky on legal grounds, but I think that, in the long term, its impact may not be as harmful as critics think or as helpful as proponents believe. I believe this because I think that the impact of increased corporate political spending will be offset by the increasing skepticism about politics and corruption of individual Americans.
Both critics and proponents seem to assume that most Americans are too ignorant and too passive to be able to separate true information from propaganda. I’m of the opinion that, while this has been true in the past, the past decade in politics and the lies and misrepresentations at every level of government and from both parties have put Americans on notice that they cannot trust the media or politicians or all of the so-called “talking heads” to tell the unbiased truth.
All across America, populist sentiment is on the rise. Populism is, by its very nature, neither Republican nor Democrat. Populism is about giving power back to the people, about distrusting the packaged information put out by government and corporations and other entities and questioning what J.K. Galbraith called the “conventional wisdom.”
In the end, propaganda can only be effective if the people believe it. I think that the Supreme Court’s decision will have an unintended consequence: people will simply distrust the media and all those “experts” so willing to tell us what to think and believe even more than they do now. To my mind, the best defense against increasing corporate influence in politics, and any other influence as well, is an educated, informed, and active citizenry.