Thursday's narrow U.S. Supreme Court decision cleared the way for corporations, labor unions, and other organizations to spend their money freely on behalf of candidates for federal office — although not to pass the money directly to candidates' campaigns. This decision is bad for the health of our democracy.
The earlier McCain-Feingold so-called campaign reform act already had taken a step in that direction by authorizing spending by "527 committees" — independent committees not tied directly to either business or labor (such as the one which sponsored the Swiftboat commercials against Sen. John Kerry in 2004) but from which candidates themselves could take their distance.
Here are immediate implications of the 5-4 Supreme Court decision on Thursday:
First, political parties will be further reduced in influence, and the power of corporations, labor unions, and others with special agendas will be enhanced. This will continue a 35-year trend in which the national political parties themselves have been reduced to a) framing candidate-selection processes, b) staging national conventions, and c) undertaking voter-registration and turnout activities. Real power in the process has flowed continuously away from the parties and to the candidates themselves and the single-issue and special-interest groups that provide them with money and votes.
Second, media campaigns launched by corporations, unions, and others can carry messages and make claims that the candidates themselves would hesitate to make. Federal-level politics can get gamey. But a presidential candidate, for instance, will be wary of making extreme or unsubstantiated charges for fear of being nailed for it. Corporations and unions will not be so constrained. Our already degraded political debate will be knocked down yet another notch.
Third, while most media reaction to the court ruling centered around corporations' likely new influence, I am not so sure that, at the beginning at least, unions will not be the big winners. They are far more accustomed to political action than corporations and more sophisticated in their spending for political purposes. Most corporations tend to be uneasy in politics and often quite ham-handed when they intervene in it. Few, for instance, will be willing to spend and be active under their own banners &mdash such as a Microsoft or Boeing banner — but will do it through trade associations or national business organizations once removed. Unions will feel no such constraints and will let 'er rip under their own flags.
Overall, we can in election years expect to be barraged by political messages in greater volume, and with fewer constraints, than at present. Are you ready for some football?