On the subject of more not always being all it’s cracked up to be, I think it took about thirty seconds after President Obama won the election for the first pundits to remark, “Six billion dollars, and we’re right back where we started.” I can’t say I’m even a little surprised. By now, the case of Citizens United v. FEC is among the oft-repeated rallying cries against the unmitigated influence of money in politics. But, as I see it, the influence of money might actually be more mitigated than we think for the simple reason that when systems swell beyond a certain size, they have a tendency to collapse under their own weight.
The landmark Citizens United case opened up the valves on soft money, enabling 501c3 corporations in the form of PACs to spend unlimited sums on issues media entirely outside the regulations of the FEC. As long as the communication doesn’t say “vote for” or “vote against” it’s fair game. According to multiple sources, outside spending by PACs on issues messaging to oppose President Obama was roughly three times the amount spent on similar media to oppose Romney. So, why didn’t it work?
When the ruling on Citizens United was first announced, it was hard not to be offended by its implications — that money is speech, that corporations are people, that this would have a dire effect on our political process. I must have had a lot of time on my hands that month because I read the transcripts of the arguments by SCOTUS and have to say that two things came to mind that at least tempered, if not entirely assuaged, my instinctive negative response.
The first is that in fact the free speech aspect of this particular case is not cut and dry; and as a member of the film community, I don’t think I’d be comfortable if the ruling had gone the other way. At issue was a heavily biased documentary about Hilary Clinton that was clearly designed to torpedo her during the primaries leading up to the 2008 race. The FEC argued that it was political advertising and that both the production and proposed means of distribution via Pay Per View ran afoul of campaign finance restrictions. The majority opinion was that ruling against Citizens United would have a chilling effect on speech, and I have to say that it isn’t often I agree with Justice Scalia, but this one of those times. Looking at the particulars of this case, I found it very hard to imagine a documentary film project about a social issue or a political figure, no matter how dilligent the filmmakers might be in their research, that could not theoretically be squelched by the FEC had the precedent ruling gone the other way.
But my second thought on the matter brings us to the the practical question as to whether or not more really adds up to more. Of course money influences elections, but it does not stand to reason that unlimited money will have unlimited influence. And if this first post-Citizens United presidential race is any indication, there’s no denying the possibility that the electorate may be less susceptible to these messages exactly as Justice Scalia predicted they would be when he said about free speech, “The more the merrier. People are smart enough to figure it out.” While the ruling in Citizens United is unappealing in principal, I remain skeptical as to whether it will inexorably affect our politics as many have predicted — or at least that the money will be about campaigns.
One factor to consider is that actual corporate dollars, what I’ll call the sane money, is likely to be bound by a principal more significant than campaign finance regulation, and that’s ROI. When corporations don’t get return on their investments, they tend not to make them a second time; and we may well see the sane money stick to classic lobbying and other forms of influence rather than continue to roll million-dollar dice on campaigns. As I said in an older post, look how cost-effectively the Internet industry stopped a bill in its tracks with its anti-SOPA campaign. Those are the kinds of policy-based initiatives we should be watching, and possibly more closely than campaign finance.
Of course, Citizens United also unleashed a fair bit of crazy money, too by which I am referring to egomaniacal billionaires and niche groups who feel it’s their personal mission to see Americans be more Christian or eat more beets or make gayness illegal or whatever. And then there’s the crazy money of those who just like to wave their influence around Trumpishly, with no clear objective except it seems self-aggrandizement. While these side-show shenanigans are diverting, occasionally entertaining, and always fuel for walls and Tweetdecks, I suspect that if they move the needle at all, it is more often to galvanize their own opposition. It’s not that I think the crazy money has no influence, so much as I have to wonder who needs to spend millions on extreme views when guys like Todd Akin will use the term “legitimate rape” for free?
This article from yesterday’s Roll Call raises the point I’m making, that we need to look beyond the bullet points of the big numbers and the election outcome and focus on where the money goes more subtly when we’re not usually looking.