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The Supreme Court's Citizen United Decision Is Terrifying

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If you're looking for a concise way of capturing today's Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, how about: "We are all royally, hopelessly fucked for the rest of recorded time"? It's coarse, I know, but it really does the trick.

As you may have heard, in a 5-4 decision, the SCOTUS essentially went at the teeth of McCain-Feingold reform with hammer and tongs, leaving America in a "David After Dentist" state, wailing, "What's happening? Is this going to be forever?" Except that its not the anesthetic talking -- it's the very real, excruciating pain.

In one swoop, the court did away with nearly everything in federal campaign finance law, allowing corporations free reign to inject as much money as they jolly well please into federal campaigns. The decision completes what Slate's Dahlia Lithwick calls "The Pinocchio Project," in which the Court transforms "a corporation into a real live boy," complete with personhood, free-speech rights and the unfettered opportunity to drown the body politic in a tidal wave of perverse incentives.

Here's what President Barack Obama had to say about this:

"With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics," said President Obama in a statement. "It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans... That's why I am instructing my Administration to get to work immediately with Congress on this issue. We are going to talk with bipartisan Congressional leaders to develop a forceful response to this decision."

Oh, but the president is being charitable! Here are some data points to chew on:

A very large percentage of U.S. corporations are owned by foreign persons or entities. In 2006, USA Today reported: "Nearly one in five U.S. oil refineries is owned by foreign companies. Foreign companies also have a sizable presence in running power plants, chemical factories and water treatment facilities in the United States." It was also reported that, "Roads and bridges built by U.S. taxpayers are starting to be sold off, and so far foreign-owned companies are doing the buying." In 2008, it was reported that foreign ownership of U.S. companies "more than doubled" between 1996 and 2005. To get a fix on the spending power, consider this: "The total receipts of foreign-owned companies were $1.7 trillion in 1996 and just $39 billion in 1971."

I'm not trying to stoke zero-sum xenophobia, here. The idea of foreign persons or entities seizing -- by judicial fiat -- such a dramatic advantage in terms of influence over the American people seems to me to be, as they say, less than ideal.

In the 2008 election, Barack Obama and John McCain combined to spend about $1 billion, a number that Politico's Jeanne Cummings called "an unprecedented figure." And the combined expenditures of the entire 2008 cycle came to "a record-shattering $5.3 billion in spending by candidates, political parties and interest groups on the congressional and presidential races."

By means of comparison:

TOTAL AMOUNT OF BONUSES PAID OUT BY GOLDMAN-SACHS, 2009: $16 billion

TOTAL AMOUNT OF BONUSES PAID OUT BY JPMORGAN CHASE, 2009: $27 billion

TOTAL AMOUNT OF BONUSES PAID OUT BY MORGAN STANLEY, 2009: $14 billion

TOTAL AMOUNT OF BONUSES PAID OUT BY CITIGROUP, 2009: $25 billion

In the Massachusetts Senate election, Martha Coakley raised about $5 million and spent about $4 million -- obviously not particularly well, considering Scott Brown only spent about one-fifth of that amount. But! Imagine what might have happened if that election, in which America's insurance companies believed they had tens of billions of dollars at stake, took place in the environment created by this Supreme Court decision. Yeah, that feeling is the hair standing on the back of your neck.

What, if anything, is preserved from campaign finance reform? Well, corporations still have to disclose the money they spend -- I'm sure that you're only too familiar with the awesome job the media has done penetrating the shadow network of corporate influence, which I would characterize as "the null set." Also, issue ads will continue to require those teensy disclaimers at the bottom of the screen, divulging the entity behind the ad. So, look forward to ads from outfits like "Americans For Freedom and Awesomeness" and crap like that.

Let's go back to Lithwick, on the scene as this decision was rendered:

While Stevens is reading the portion of his concurrence about the "cautious view of corporate power" held by the framers, I see Justice Thomas chuckle softly...Stevens hammers, more than once this morning from the bench on the principle that corporations "are not human beings" and "corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires." He insists that "they are not themselves members of 'We the People' by whom and for whom our Constitution was established."

But you can plainly see the weariness in Stevens eyes and hear it in his voice today as he is forced to contend with a legal fiction that has come to life today, a sort of constitutional Frankenstein moment when corporate speech becomes even more compelling than the "voices of the real people" who will be drowned out. Even former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist once warned that treating corporate spending as the First Amendment equivalent of individual free speech is "to confuse metaphor with reality." Today that metaphor won a very real victory at the Supreme Court. And as a consequence some very real corporations are feeling very, very good.

This decision is nutlog, utterly bonkers. If corporations can't be held to account in electoral politics, we are seriously at an end. So it's a good thing that John Edwards's love child is clogging up the news cycle today!

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