The Court's 5-4 decision, in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, removes any limits on independent expenditures that advocate the defeat or support of a political candidate, as long as it remains independent of a candidate's campaign. In doing so, it effectively overturns the historic campaign finance laws of McCain-Feingold and vastly increases the influence corporate money has in the election process.
The ruling applies equally to corporations, unions, trade associations and non-profits. It still prohibits corporations or unions from directly contributing to a political candidate, and the old disclosures remain: the name and address of the group responsible for a political ad must be included if the ad isn’t authorized by the candidate depicted; and the company must file with the Federal Election Commission the names of anyone who contributed $1,000 or more to the ad’s preparation or distribution.
There's no doubt this is a great advancement for the ad and marketing industries. Election seasons will now become an advertising battleground of corporate logos and the politicians they endorse. Expect business to boom. It’s my opinion, however, that this decision comes at a greater price. Namely, it undermines the electoral process by co-opting public policy, it opens the door for back-alley corporate collusion, bribery and corruption, and it serves as nothing less than an affront to democracy because it partitions consensus solely to those bodies with the privilege to afford it.
Congress has enforced limitations on campaign spending by corporations in one form or another since the passage of the Tillman Act in 1907. And for good reason. By the 1850’s, when U.S. Senators were elected by state legislatures instead of the popular vote, election bribery was standard fare; noted instances were exposed in Colorado, Kansas, Montana and West Virginia. Ulysses S. Grant was essentially indebted to donors, giving kickbacks in the form of federal subsidies to his coffers in the railroad industry. No matter how and when the deals were made, you can bet the results have always been the same two-pronged pattern: politicians often resorted to extortion in return for corporate campaign money, and corporations hungry to influence policy spent historic sums to derail elections that interfered with their interests, as the Bank of the United States attempted with Andrew Jackson.
Fast forward to last week when, in a moment that can only be described as manufactured naïveté, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the following in the majority opinion of the case:
“This Court now concludes that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt. And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy.”
Granted, the Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t allow corporations to buy votes or contribute directly to a campaign. But there’s a difference – a huge one, in fact – between Bill Gates firing off a million dollars to his Presidential hopeful and Microsoft telling you who to vote for during November prime time. Now that corporations can spend directly from their corporate treasuries, their employees, shareholders, and customers are now essentially beholden to support that corporation’s candidate simply by working for or buying the company’s product. You can see where this is going. Bought an Apple computer? You just sent money to the Barack Obama reelection committee! Bought a Ford? You just supported the election campaign of Jeb Bush!
It’s a marketer’s dream, but a short-lived one. When brand image becomes intertwined in the political spectrum, the conversation moves away from the initial narrative surrounding the brand and instead threatens to subsume or be usurped by its associative surrogate in which it has little control. In the long run, this decision could prove disastrous for corporate branding because, by design, it is no longer anchored to any centralized meaning.
Corporations already have plenty of opportunities to participate in the electoral process. There’s absolutely nothing illegal about campaign contributions from corporate employees, owners or their board of directors, either from their own pockets or their political action committee. This is the influence of people, not bodies that may or may not represent their employees, customers or union members, the same people who vote in our general elections, a privilege that corporations do not share.
Thankfully, there are already a number of bills in varying states opposing this measure. Congressman Alan Grayson (D- FL) has introduced no fewer than five bills to fight the influence of corporate money in politics (with such apt names as “The End Political Kickbacks Act” and “The Business Should Mind Its Own Business Act”). On January 21, Leonard Boswell (D-IA) introduced a Constitutional amendment to restrict corporate political spending. Finally, there’s the Fair Elections Now act, a bi-partisan bill introduced by John Larson (D-Conn.) and Walter Jones (R-NC), which would prohibit candidates running for office to accept large contributions or lobbyist donations, making them rely instead on raising a large number of small contributions that later qualify them for Fair Elections funding to pays for a portion of their primary and general election campaigns.
The ongoing healthcare debate in Congress and its resulting scorched-earth advertising landscape is proof that the Supreme Court’s ruling will open the floodgates for even more corporate influence in modern politics, if that’s even possible. Election seasons could surpass the Super Bowl for its orgy of marketing metrics, a virtual Times Square of corporate sloganeering for the politicians they incidentally endorse, our democratic process reduced to a NASCAR auto-racing event, its star politicians emblazoned in corporate messages for mass adulation.
The political future could resemble that of a David Foster Wallace novel, where the calendar years are replaced with names like “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.”
The sky’s the limit. What’s next? Wal-Mart for Senator? Coca-Cola for President?