Is Citizens United Focus a Good Use of Our Time? (2014)

Such a comforting thought—that overturning a single court case can resolve some of society’s biggest problems. With Citizens United, the idea seems to be that huge strides could be made by reversing it, thereby “getting the money out of” elections. It’s our current version of the “silver bullet” myth of old.

Kind of like thinking that bee pollen will cure your cancer. Now, I’m not anti-bee pollen, or anti-herbal remedies, but the human body is a bodaciously complicated place. To think that adding a single substance to your diet (while changing nothing else) will cure a systemic disease is a bit simplistic. The body politic is also complex, as is the problem of how to make it democratic.

As far as court cases are concerned, there may be one or two good prospects for thinking that a reversal might overhaul society. Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that enshrined “separate but equal,” comes to mind, and its effective overturning in 1954 was a huge victory.

I know Plessy, and I know Citizens United, and Citizens United is no Plessy v. Ferguson. How do I know? Because I’ve read Citizens United, and the case it came from, and the Michigan law that was at issue. (I’ve also read Buckley v. Valeo, but we won’t go there now).

Do you have to do that? No, because you can read my very short take on it here. Keywords: money = speech, corporate “personhood,” and McCain-Feingold. Citizens United activism, far from being a silver bullet, is more like a lead weight. I think it actually distracts us from underlying issues.

While I’m at it, there’s a related issue that I’d like to raise. You could gloss it as Campaign Reform (the term I prefer) versus Campaign Finance Reform. Here’s the heart of it: in today’s world, except in a few cases of very low-level public offices, no one can get elected unless they have at least a comfortable middle-class security blanket, and probably much more.

That flat-out eliminates working class or low -income people from the pool of possible elected officials. Is it any wonder that a huge percent of our elected officials are lawyers, or other businesspeople or professionals with secure (to say the least) finances? Am I the only one who would like to see, uh, people of moderate income, low income, and real laborers elected to office once in a while?

Cutting to the point: If we’re serious about having elected officials that come anywhere close to representing the diversity of our society, then we need to do much more than tweak a few of the rules for financing elections. We need to completely rethink how we design the election process. Hence, instead of merely playing around with campaign finance reform, we need to face campaign reform—a bodacious redesign of the campaign idea.

With the help of others, notably labor historian Peter Kellman, I’ve tried to sketch out what this rethinking might involve. You can read it here. It’s not a blueprint, just an effort to broaden our thinking from a tarnished silver bullet, to a very difficult but much more promising path.

Thanks for reading this. Until the next rant, jam

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