The Supreme Court held a specially scheduled oral argument Wednesday to decide whether to overturn a century of laws prohibiting corporations from using their treasury funds to influence federal elections. Judging from the justices' questions and the tenor of the argument, this once-unthinkable outcome seems increasingly likely.
The case--Citizens United v. FEC--has received rapt attention among legal experts, but not nearly as much as it deserves from the general public.
At stake is the basic principle of whether the size of one's wallet should determine the strength of her voice in our democracy.
Many have written about the potentially catastrophic impact of corporate contributions on our political process. See, here and here for example. Others have argued persuasively that overruling decades of solid, settled precedent makes a mockery of Chief Justice Roberts' claims of "judicial restraint" during his confirmation hearings (here).
I'd like to focus on why it is important to prevent corporations from playing in elections in the first place--and, for that matter, why we need campaign finance laws at all.
In the United States, we've chosen representative democracy as our political system and (moderated) capitalism as our economic system. Whereas communism and fascism attempt to merge politics and economics into a coherent whole, we have two systems that fit fairly well together, but are distinct. Think of the political and economic as two spheres or arenas we must navigate.
The question at stake with campaign finance law is, "How important is it to keep the economic and political spheres separate and distinct?" And, the answer is, "Very important, if we are to hold true to our core values as Americans."
Critically, we hold different values dear in each of these two arenas. In the political sphere, equality is a paramount value. Regardless of our partisan political affiliations, we all subscribe to the concept of one person, one vote; we all believe it critical that we come to the political table as equals.
Not so in the economic sphere. Much domestic political wrangling occurs over how to divide the economic pie, but few (if any) prominent voices argue for complete equality. We have decided to accept a certain amount of economic inequality in service of competing values such as efficiency and proper incentives.
In sum, our twin commitments to democracy and capitalism leave most of us with the general sense that every citizen has an equal right to participate in political life, but not necessarily the right to possess an equal number of widgets or dollars.
And, here's the key point: maintaining equality in one sphere but not another requires a meaningful separation of the spheres. Laws that regulate the role of big money in politics are the firewalls that prevent the perhaps warranted inequalities in the economic sphere from becoming unwarranted disparities in the political arena.
Allowing huge corporations or wealthy tycoons to purchase political outcomes makes a mockery of the principle behind one person, one vote.
And, it sets off a vicious cycle that undermines the moral legitimacy of both politics and economics in our society. Giving the wealthy a greater voice than average citizens corrupts the process of political decision-making. This, in turn, calls into question the legitimacy of our economic arrangements, since economic conditions are set or sanctioned in the political arena (where we decide tax policy, regulations, etc.). This, finally, makes the influence of economics on politics all the worse--completing the cycle.
We need laws that prevent corporations and wealthy individuals from translating legitimate economic power into unwarranted political influence. The Congress understood this as early as 1907; the people understand it now; only the Supreme Court seems fuzzy on the concept.