John Roberts’ America
By Timothy Egan
I wish Chief Justice John Roberts could spend a day and a night in the Rocky Mountains experiencing what his activist Supreme Court majority has dumped on the American voter in 2010.
The sludge flow from out-of-state, secretive political groups is unrelenting. All hours. All mediums. A football game-break brings three attacks in a row, calling a senator a liar, a vandal and a glutton for debt. A weather update is interrupted by a trio of hits from the other side, making the challenger out to be the worst thing for women since Neanderthal man took up a club as an accessory to romance.
Colorado is ground zero for what’s happening in John Roberts’ America, competing for the dubious distinction of being the top state in the nation for spending by shadowy outside groups telling people how to vote.
This gusher is courtesy of the 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision in January that allowed unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions. That was the ruling, which will go down in infamy, where the court said that corporations had the same free speech rights as ordinary citizens.
The illogic of that logic was always apparent. But now it’s overwhelming, and omnipresent. Your average voter can dash off a letter to the editor, or fire up a blog, or put up a yard sign — a nice fantasy of citizen democracy. Your corporate equal can spend $23 million (the outsider amount spent so far in Colorado) to bludgeon the electorate. And, with loopholes in the tax system, they can do it while making it virtually impossible to know who they are.
These corporate and union interest groups shouldn’t suffer in the arena of public debate, the court wrote in the Citizens United case, “simply because such associations are not natural persons.”
In the megaphone phase of this campaign to determine who will control the people’s Congress, the locals — those actual “natural persons” — are all but silent. Races in Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Washington state are being determined on K Street, by insurance, banking and oil industry groups hiding behind innocuous titles like Americans for Prosperity (right-wing billionaire David Koch) and Americans for Job Security (insurance giants), and by public employee unions.
Every day sets a new record. Last Friday, there were 1,200 television ads in Las Vegas for the Senate race.
I agree with those who say money doesn’t necessarily determine electoral outcomes. Meg Whitman, $140 million lighter and still trailing in her race for California governor, is exhibit A.
But the Citizens United decision of the Roberts court has fundamentally changed how we choose our leaders and our laws, all for the worse.
Here’s what’s happened: Spending by interest groups in this fall’s Senate races has gone up 91 percent from the same period in 2008, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. At the same time, spending by political parties has fallen 61 percent.
So corporations, whose sole purpose is to return money to shareholders, were given the legal right to be “natural persons” in our elections and are now overwhelming them. But political parties, which exist to promote ideas and governing principles, have seen their voices sharply diminished.
If the hell of Colorado’s current election season is what those isolated, black-robed kingmakers on the high court had in mind, you certainly didn’t see it in the nonsense of their decision.
“We should celebrate rather than condemn the addition of this speech to the public debate,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in his concurrence of Citizens.
I can’t find any celebrating in Colorado, except by broadcasters cashing the checks of big special interest groups. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, by a large majority in the polls, agree on this: outside groups should not be allowed to dominate election spending.
The court missed the reality of what would happen once the floodgates were opened to the deepest pockets of the biggest players. They turned back a century of fine-tuning the democracy, dating to Teddy Roosevelt’s 1907 curbs, through the Tillman Act, against Gilded Age dominance of elections. They focused on a fantasy.
“The First Amendment protects more than just the individual on a soapbox or the lonely pamphleteer,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts.
Come to Colorado, your honor. You will see that those iconic individuals don’t have a prayer in the post-Citizens United world, let alone some broadcast time for the soapbox.
Here was the court’s prediction: “The appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.” Really?
Perhaps the top complaint this year about the barrage of outside attack ads is that nobody knows who is behind them, which promotes the exact opposite of what the Roberts court predicted.
Celebrating yet? Get used to it. Though Republican-leaning special interests are currently outspending the other side by a 9-to-1 ratio, Democrats will soon follow Karl Rove’s lead and learn to bundle and hide wealthy contributors.
As ugly as 2010 has been, the next election cycle, for president in 2012, will bring us a John Roberts’ America that will make this year look like a town hall meeting from a Rockwell painting.
Timothy Egan is a columnist for The New York Times, where this article first appeared.