You may have heard of the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which has been widely understood to overturn virtually the entire body of law that preceded it and open the floodgates to a massive infusion of corporate cash into the U.S. electoral system. Reacting to the Court’s decision in a recent speech, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—a Republican appointee—worried about its effect not only on legislative elections, but also on the judiciary. “We can anticipate that labor unions and trial lawyers…might have the financial means to win one particular state judicial election…And maybe tobacco firms and energy companies have enough to win the next one,” she said, “and if both sides unleash their campaign monies without restrictions, then I think mutually assured destruction is the most likely outcome.”
That day is here now that the court has decided in favor of Citizens United, a nonprofit corporation whose “major objectives include complete U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations.” The organization produced “Hillary: The Movie,” which they had attempted to release on cable during the primary season. The Federal Election Commission saw a clear violation of McCain-Feingold, which restricted corporations’ public communications against a specific candidate within 30 days of an election. The Roberts court overturned two precedents with its decision, proclaiming the case a victory for free political speech.
And yet this story, which is likely to shape the contours of elections at every level of our federal system for the foreseeable future, has received barely a fraction of the attention of the special election in Massachusetts, whose outcome will affect one senate seat for two years. Nonetheless, Scott Brown’s Senate victory remained the top story, even after the January 21 decision was handed down. The Supreme Court ruling was relegated to just another in a list of Democratic political misfortunes, on par with John Edwards’s dreary paternity saga, according to Terry Moran of ABC News’ “This Week.”
Few in the media—particularly television—have acknowledged, much less explored, the implications of this decision. Coverage of Brown’s campaign and election for the week of January 18-24 accounted for more airtime on the cable networks than even Haiti. In fact, Haiti only ranked so high because CNN devoted 60 percent of its time to the story. The Massachusetts Senate race accounted for 32 percent of cable coverage while the Supreme Court ruling accounted for only 2 percent.
This extraordinary example of judicial activism by the Roberts Court received the most play from online and print news sources. Tobin Harshaw summarizes the abundant and chaotic diversity of opinion on the subject, and his employer, The New York Times, offered a number of interesting and useful perspectives on the decision and its implications themselves.
The Sunday morning talk shows, which essentially set the agenda for the news week, were almost exclusively preoccupied with Brown’s election and its effect on health care reform and the national electorate. Bob Scheiffer on “Face the Nation” gave the most airtime to the court’s decision of any of the network shows. Scheiffer had a nine-minute exclusive interview with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who co-authored the bill that was overturned by the Court. The host devoted a total of two minutes to discussion of the ruling, asking one initial question and one follow-up. Scheiffer then moved the conversation along to what he called “this thunderbolt in Massachusetts.”
Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” spoke to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), and also devoted most of his attention to Brown’s victory—at least until he asked, “And finally—and we’ve only got about 30 seconds left—what’s the practical effect of the Supreme Court ruling this week saying that corporations can now openly support and spend money, openly supporting or opposing candidates? Do you expect a rush of corporate cash into the campaign?” Cornyn said the impact of the decision has been “overstated.” That was it.
The opening of “Meet the Press” referred to Scott Brown’s victory as “the shot heard round the political world.” Later in the show, David Gregory asked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who was likely to benefit from the Court’s decision. McConnell insisted, “I don’t know who it benefits, but it’s an important victory for the first amendment.” Gregory did not mention that McConnell brought the first Supreme Court challenge to the McCain-Feingold Act in 2003, and in that case the court ruled to uphold the law.
Terry Moran asked Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) on “This Week” what he thought of the decision, and DeMint, like McConnell, said that this was a victory for free speech. DeMint went further to say, “I believe people should be able to come together in associations and organizations and spend money to get their message out.” It almost sounds as if DeMint is as pro-union as he is pro-business here for a moment. In fact, Senator DeMint has been infamous in the news of late for the hold he put on Erroll Southers’s nomination to lead the Transportation Security Administration. DeMint successfully quashed the nomination, potentially endangering the security of millions of Americans by leaving this crucial office leaderless and without executive direction because Southers declined to embrace DeMint’s antiunion position.
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” host John King and his guests referred to Massachusetts 90 times over the four-hour program; there were a total of three references to the Supreme Court. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), one of King’s guests, said correctly that current laws have not stopped enormous amounts of corporate and union money from flowing into the campaigns. Hatch went on to defend the ruling, but suggested that wrongdoing can still be punished: “It comes down to free speech. Do these people have a right to participate in the political process? And the answer is yes. I think the unions should. I think the corporations should, and the fact of the matter is, there are ways that we can curtail offensive action if we want to.”
The largest political donor in 2009 was AT&T with more than $44 million in political contributions. The poor folks at Goldman Sachs, sadly saddled with just $13 billion or so in promised advances, made due with a sorry fourth place showing of a bit over $31 million, not a bad investment given the taxpayer cash they also pocketed. So, Mr. Hatch, why would conservatives wish to curtail “offensive action” in the political arena where the corporations that support their candidacies remain almost incalculably wealthier and more aggressive in pursuit of their political advantages than do more liberal-oriented unions? I guess we’ll have to wait until next week for the “so-called liberal media” to go after that one….
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.
Mickey Ehrlich is a freelance writer based in New York.