After the already infamous outting by the New York Times last week of the anti-Obama attack-ad scheme, allegedly contemplated by billionaire Joe Ricketts, pundits and even scholars were once again chanting the post-Citizens-United refrain: our political system has been corrupted by big money!
But, is that really the case?
Or, instead, has the opening of the doors of political campaigning to vast new stores of big-money-speech clarified the political reality that has been obvious in the USA for a long time now?
One way or another, especially as political campaigning has gotten more and more expensive, money does the talking, and wealthy people and organizations thus have the greatest means to purchase special access, influence, and favors from politicians. That is not a reality that began with the Citizens United ruling, a Supreme Court decision widely condemned as being one of the worst in US history.
A key premise of the classic Capra movie of the one honest man left, Mr Smith Goes To Washington, is the assumption that the tendency to corruption, with politicians being open to purchase by big-money special interests, is the norm, not the exception in Washington DC. At the time the movie was released, seventy-three years ago, Congress reacted with moral outrage that anybody would question the integrity of politicians. These days, politicians—especially those in Congress—know they are viewed by the American people as being about as respectable as thieves in the night.
The only thing that has changed with Citizens United on that count is that the Supreme Court authorized a surreal interpretation of the First Amendment that effectively made most free speech (delivered by small-"c" citizens) just not worth as much as that committed to the political process by big corporations and big-egoed billionaires. The latter have more important things to say than the rest of us, because they can buy the access (to media and politicians) to drown out all other voices, and so make a dubious proposition—that the voice of the plutocratic minority should matter more—a fait accompli.
Again, the reaction to this bald-faced grab by the wealthy of the few remaining bits of the political landscape they didn't already dominate has sent many people into rhetorical tizzies, but the simplification and clarification of reality afforded to us by Citizens United, points to another evident fact. And that is, the people don't have to do what the billionaires or the superPACs or for that matter the money-dominated campaigns and politicians tell them. The people don't have to sacrifice reason and careful consideration of the issues by accepting the emotional appeals of flashy, big-money, ad campaigns. In short, the people don't have to buy presidents (and governors and senators) like they buy chewing gum and washing machines.
But, so far that is what voters have chosen to do. National issues are simply too complicated for most people to grasp with sufficient knowledge to make informed decisions. Ultimately, their choices about who to vote for are based on emotional reactions, or will be based on advertising-supplied profiles of candidates and their alleged character (or lack of it).
Of course, none of this takes into consideration the impact, whatever it may be, of the internet. Certainly, web-based debate by millions of people caries on every day, debate which is relatively inexpensive and represents the collective voice of the people, at least the ones with internet access and the time and interest to engage in political discussion. Unfortunately, it is reasonable to think this is still a small minority of the total electorate, and that these people, not being as vulnerable to advertising, in a sense don't count as much as the "open-minded" in the process.
At the end of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the one good man left, in his triumphal and very long filibuster, says "Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here. You just have to see them again."
Of course, earlier, in a somewhat less bipartisan mood, he admits:
"Either I'm dead right or I'm crazy!"
In the movies, anyway, in 1939 (yes, that 1939), Mr. Smith was dead right.
In 2012, in our current political reality, arguing for "great principles" that you actually expect the American people to see or recognize more clearly than their favorite brand of smartphone, or soda, might just make you certifiable, or hopelessly naive anyway.
In November, we'll find out which brand of president the people bought this time.