Corporate America is quite capable of communicating political messages that are both false in content and evil in intent. It is never good news when the folks who brought us the fictional characters of Harry, Louise and clean coal are presented with more opportunity to influence public policy.
So perhaps I should not have been surprised that the Supreme Court's recent decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, holding that government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections, was greeted by great wailing and gnashing of teeth, especially among the progressives with whom I usually agree.
Democratic members of Congress grabbed poll-tested talking points and raced to microphones to condemn the ruling, even though Democrats have taken more corporate money than the GOP lately. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida) even called Citizens United the worst Supreme Court decision since the Dred Scott case.
"The First Amendment is an absolute protection of political speech, no matter whether its sponsor is the Ku Klux Klan, Eli Lilly or the AARP."
President Obama was barely more restrained, calling the ruling "a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans."
But it is equally true that Wall Street banks, big oil, et al. would not have a chance at drowning out the voices of everyday Americans if only we actually decided to raise them. Anyone in politics can tell you that there is not enough money in all the corporate PACs combined to inspire an elected official to take a stance that will cause 50.1% of her constituents to vote against her.
Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis said it best back in 1927, in the case of Whitney v. California: "When faced with false and even evil messages, the remedy is more speech, not enforced silence."
So, on constitutional grounds, progressives are dead wrong in demonizing this decision. The First Amendment is an absolute protection of political speech, no matter whether its sponsor is the Ku Klux Klan, Eli Lilly or the AARP.
"There is not enough money in all the corporate PACs combined to inspire an elected official to take a stance that will cause 50.1% of her constituents to vote against her."
On pragmatic political grounds, the Citizens United critics are equally wrong.
Corporate money does play far too large a role in our political discourse. But the Supreme Court did the rest of us a favor with this reminder that sending in a donation to a political campaign is the kind of armchair activism that plays to the strengths of the moneyed few who are quite content to fight for the hearts and minds of elected officials on the playing fields of cash.
True reform in this country, in the guise of the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the peace movement of the Vietnam War era, was won with grassroots energy, creativity and mass mobilization, not with campaign contributions or TV ads.
The beauty of the First Amendment is that we are compelled to let the corporations and the wealthy have their say, but then we the people are free to drown them out with the truth.
Fran Quigley is a Visiting Professor of Law at the Indiana University School of Law--Indianapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.