This week, two former U.S. senators who made their political careers stoking the extreme partisanship that is poisoning our nation took to a Reno stage to lament the extreme partisanship that is poisoning our nation. And as if irony and hypocrisy weren’t enough, they threw in a healthy dose of dishonesty on top of it all.
The senators, of course, were Harry Reid and John Kerry, who blamed money in politics generally and Citizens United v. FEC specifically as the cause of our nation’s woes, and their prescription is an even denser set of campaign finance rules that will apparently magically make everyone get along. Let us count the ways in which their claims are ridiculous – and ultimately harmful to us all if we are foolish enough to take these men seriously.
Citizens United is only a controversial decision if you hate free speech
Citizens United might be one of the most misunderstood Supreme Court decisions of all time. Most of that “misunderstanding” is the result of deliberate false maligning by politicians on the left of a perfectly reasonable decision. One senses they would be perfectly comfortable outlawing their political adversaries’ right to publicly oppose them, were that possible.
The case itself involves a conservative political advocacy organization called Citizens United. In 2008, the group made an anti-Hillary Clinton video entitled Hillary: The Movie, and wanted to make it available on demand via various cable companies. The law at the time prohibited political advocacy organizations who accepted donations from corporations (CU took them from both individuals and corporate entities) from “electioneering” within 30 days of an election. Consider the absurdity of that – right before we vote, advocates aren’t allowed to speak for or against specific candidates. If the First Amendment doesn’t protect that, then it protects nothing at all.
The objections from the left are that corporations shouldn’t be allowed to speak or to spend money on publishing their speech. “Corporations aren’t people!” they cry. But this only makes sense if you have no idea what a “corporation” actually is. A corporation is simply a group of people getting together for some purpose, as a means to differentiate the group activities and funds from those of its individual members. But it’s still human beings acting through the organization. Without the people in it, a corporation is literally nothing more than a piece of paper in a drawer at the secretary of state’s office.
The political home of labor unions doesn’t have any problem with people getting together – of citizens uniting, it could be phrased – to achieve some political end. The recent “student -ed” marches to limit Second Amendment rights were anything but – rather, they were funded heavily by rich political operatives who were so brazen about their astroturfing that corporate logos for “Everytown for Gun Safety” and “Giffords” advocacy groups appeared on every other sign at those events. (I have no problem with this, because I like free speech. I just wish folks would be more honest about what’s actually going on during political rallies of that type.) No, the opponents of Citizens United aren’t actually opposed to corporate entities engaging in political advocacy. They just don’t like people with the “wrong” opinions doing the engaging.
Money doesn’t cause partisanship – partisan politicians do
Those opposed to money in politics seem to argue that money alone is enough to buy elections, but the facts don’t bear that out. Hillary Clinton raised nearly twice as much money as Donald Trump. Historically, when adjusted for inflation, population growth and rise in incomes, political spending hasn’t really changed much in decades, with notable outliers being Richard Nixon, Barack Obama and John Kerry himself. Money can buy air time and political fliers and venue space for rallies, but at some point, you still have to have a message that makes people want to get out and cast a vote for you.
And beyond that message, leadership and integrity does matter. For short-term partisan gain, Harry Reid had no problem falsely accusing his political opponents of committing felonies. John Kerry has certainly told brazen lies for political gain. At some point, you stop making deals or compromising with people you can’t trust. None of this is new, or limited to Democrats, but neither of these two men have any right – or credibility – to lament a lack of collegiality in Washington, or blame it on American citizens who chose to spend their time or money exercising their First Amendment rights.
And honestly – I’ll take the complaints about “money in politics” a lot more seriously the day my progressive friends start rejecting candidates who get so much funding from George Soros, Tom Steyer or Hollywood millionaires.
More regulation = more weapons for political operatives (and no public benefit)
Bare-knuckle politicians like Reid like a heavily regulated campaign finance environment because it serves to keep “outsider” candidates from running – those regulations are both intimidating and expensive to navigate, and the consequences are dire if you make a mistake. (Just ask Reid mega-donor and bundler Harvey Whittemore.)
More recently, we’ve seen local political operatives using the rules to harass each other with specious and ridiculous ethics and FEC complaints, including (gasp!) Dean Heller talking to people about what he’s doing in Washington or (gasp!) Jacky Rosen having outstanding legal bills. It’s a great way to avoid talking about actual issues, but the tactics of both sides serve to poison the well when it comes to the post-campaign needs of our Congressional delegation to work together.
Most campaign finance rules are nothing more than incumbent protection measures, serving not to limit money in politics, but to hide it. At best, it is well-meaning but self-defeating red tape, and these problems exist nationwide. Frankly, I think any limits on political activity, including donations to campaigns, ought to be deemed unconstitutional – the First Amendment protects publishing (the press) as well as speaking, and even in 1781 printing presses weren’t free. Regulations should be limited to transparency, including instant (or nearly so) disclosure of any donation made directly to a specific candidate. Anonymous issue advocacy has a long tradition in American politics, and ought not be limited by those who would suppress the ideas being expressed.
At the end of the day, whatever benefit might come from powerful government agents (who likely as not have their own agenda) regulating “free” political speech is outweighed by the chilling of broader public involvement and the ability of entrenched political insiders to use needlessly complex rules to keep themselves, well, entrenched. The “solution” to ideas you don’t like is to expose and refute those ideas, not to attempt to shut them up. Reid and Kerry have always been part of the problem, and their policy prescriptions will exacerbate, not mitigate, the poisonous political tribalism we all suffer from in this modern era.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a deputy district attorney for Carson City. His opinions here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.