Rahm Emanuel has a reputation for blunt, merciless appraisals of the state of political affairs. In a recent interview with London’s The Guardian about the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, the Chicago mayor said, “I think the decision on Super PACs will go down as probably in the top five single worst decisions of any Supreme Court in American history.”
Keep in mind, this is the same judicial body that ruled a black man was more property than person (Dred Scott vs. Sanford, 1857); the same body that “softened” its view four decades later to permit segregation under the guise of “separate but equal” (Plessy vs. Ferguson, 1896); the same body that upheld forced sterilization of the mentally handicapped (Buck vs. Bell, 1927); and the same body that approved the indefinite internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II (Korematsu vs. United States, 1944). Surely, then, Emanuel’s comments represent frustration more so than fact.
Or do they?
Certainly, in terms of gross disregard for humanity and blatant promotion of racism, cases like those described above achieve uniquely embarrassing levels of depravity. However, the decision in Citizens United vs. United States extends (relatively) localized injustices perpetrated in previous poor decisions to virtually the entire American public.
With its ruling, the Supreme Court has authorized unlimited corporate, union, and interest group spending – all aimed at influencing elections – through so-called “independent expenditures” and “super PACs.” It has opened the floodgates for an unprecedented deluge of private spending to shape our government.
The impact has been staggering, and overwhelmingly contrary to the egalitarian ideals of democracy on which this nation was founded. Campaigns spend egregious sums of money wooing voters, but without limits on the amount of money that may be spent, the focus shifts to the donors. Soon, our elected officials less resemble public servants than they do indentured servants: terms are spent working off debts and favors incurred over the course of the campaign instead of advocating for the people who actually did the voting. Our government’s promises to “promote the general welfare” and “secure the blessings of liberty” play second fiddle to courtship of beneficiaries for the next election season. Essentially, this disproportionate political influence of wealthy individuals and groups leads to the implicit disenfranchisement of the vast majority of Americans, a crime against democracy if there ever was one. Emanuel may have a point after all.
The Supreme Court rationalized its decision as preservation of the First Amendment right to free speech. Even if we accept the dubious equation of money to political expression, the Supreme Court has limited free speech in a myriad of ways over its history. Exceptions to the First Amendment range from threats to libel, but the general rule of thumb is that speech should be uncensored unless it harms, or could potentially harm, others. The firestorm of PAC spending since the Citizens United decision has obfuscated truth in politics for voters, indebted candidates to wealthy donors, and made addressing real political issues ancillary to campaign operation. The harm is evident, and we are all the victims.
Last week, Forbes reported that Restore Our Future – the primary super PAC supporting Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency – had secured mega-donations from no fewer than 32 billionaires. That number likely pales in comparison to the number of special interest groups running “independent expenditures” for Romney, and for President Obama as well. Sickeningly, the record shows that all that the money makes a difference.
Government of, by, and for the people has been hijacked, all because the Supreme Court called hijacking “free speech.”
I can only imagine what Emanuel must be saying off the record.