Friday, October 30, 2015

Don't believe the hype with Citizens United v. F.E.C.

Smokescreens to my right and left.
(This piece was originally posted on Medium, October 23, 2015.)

I bet you’ve heard the slogan, “Let’s overturn Citizens United!” This is telling people we need a constitutional amendment, or appoint new justices, who will overrule 2010’s Citizens United v. F.E.C. decision.

Citizens United has become a symbol, to many, of an exclusive federal government that puts a premium on political contributions. I agree that this is the state of the current United States political situation. However, calling for repealing a 2010 ruling is more of a potent rhetorical tool than a realistic — or even honest — solution to fixing an American democracy out-of-whack.

I have discussed the ruling with people who are emotional about it. Before I tread too deep into a conversation, I always ask the question, “Have you read it?” Most have not. This is understandable. A person with the Open Source Party recently said this about how people get their political information,

“One of the jobs of a political party is to provide a high return on attention by being a curator of ideas, a distiller of information, a vetter of facts/sources, and by being a bit smarter and faster than the average member who doesn’t have the time, money, or attention to research issues in depth.”

They’re right, however, we don’t have parties as much as we have candidate-based political movements. There are groups within the two major parties in the United States; and one inside the Democratic Party is #FeelTheBern. A cornerstone of Sanders’ campaign is his position on overturning Citizens United. If his rallies are like rock concerts, this line is received like one of his greatest hits.

His website says, “In a 5–4 decision in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for corporations and the wealthy to spend unlimited and undisclosed money to buy our elected officials.”

The statement regarding “undisclosed money” is simply not true. The 2010 ruling was good for transparency in elections. To blame the appalling lack of disclosure in federal elections on SCOTUS denies how good the Court has been on transparency. It also obscures the root of the problem.
The GOP can pass comprehensive disclosure rules tomorrow, however, they jealously clutch current loopholes that create the smokescreens their patrons hide behind. We need to be hitting ruling Republicans on blocking transparency laws. To Sen. Sanders’ credit, he supports legislation such as the Disclose Act, which increases transparency in elections.

Second, while spending limits can sound good, the reality is that they tend to bump up against the right of freedom of speech. The group Citizens United wanted to show a documentary on Pay-Per-View television and federal election law prohibited them from doing so. The laws that Citizens United overturned were passed by Congress before popular media such as YouTube took off.
Citizens United stated the Constitution does not discriminate against certain speakers. I believe a group like a union ought to be able to make a documentary about a candidate’s labor relations — and this statement should be allowed to stream on the internet. The Court was explicit regarding the convergence of traditional television and rapidly unfolding media technology. The ruling also mentioned how blogs and other web-based tools are important for expression.

Within the right of free speech, how is Pay-Per-View television any different from online content delivery? The ruling overturned prohibitions on electioneering during defined periods preceding an election. Citizens United basically knocked down censorship of the internet.

Buying Elected Officials?

Sanders’ campaign is raising tens of millions of dollars. His message is resonating with a lot of people. His crowd-sourced funding is the expression of the needs and values of his supporters. In other words — money is speech! The technological revolution is rapidly changing the political playing field where groups of people can combine their finances as a way to counter the concentration of money by a few individuals. I think this is an exciting development!

In light of this potential, do we really want to limit political information by repealing a court ruling that was good for transparency and internet freedom? And do we want to do this based on incendiary political rhetoric?

Indeed, politicians fanning the flames of discontent might be loath to turn off the tap of a lucrative rhetorical tool. Nevertheless, there are months before any party nominations are conducted. There is time for voters to make informed choices.

Lawrence Lessig has a good plan to break down barriers US House members have built to protect themselves. His plan to end gerrymandering and widen the franchise of voting is an honest and rational way to fix our broken political system.

Lessig is also right to call Sen. Sanders out on his sensational rhetoric. But with the #FeelTheBern bandwagon rolling, are people willing to listen?


  1. Krist -
    Valid points and Lessig does have some great ideas. People are behind Bernie because he is really the best / most liberal candidate running. There are so many broken things. It's hard to determine what is best, do we keep pushing for the most progressive candidates we can? Or should it be about fixing the system?

    1. I can agree with some of what Sanders is promoting. I do think we should provide healthcare and higher education for people. However, I feel insulted that many people think I should buy Sanders' rhetoric at face value.

      I feel like I have enough political sophistication to where I don't jump on populism. It takes time to research issues and try to make sense of them. Policies have consequences and I urge people to beware of miracle fixes shouted off bandwagons rolling by.

      This is why we are starting the Open Source Party. It is about creating an enduring group vetting issues and making policy proposals collaboratively. We also have a Facebook group —United States Open Source Party—

    2. I have similar feelings about Sanders, even though I do not consider him a credible candidate for the general election. I respect Sanders' focus on economic inequality, which is a major issue with the American middle class in decline. My question is what is the solution or how do you create more economic equality, and insofar as creating the equality inhibits the efficiency of capitalism, what is the limit of such efforts?

      When you look at history (hundreds of years), my view is that the Post-World War 2 Equitable Economic Expansion (1945-1970s) (or whatever you want to call it) is the exception as opposed to the norm, meaning that there is a general tendency in capitalist economies towards inequality as opposed to equality.

  2. Krist Novoselic for President 2016! Fuck Bernie!

  3. Politicians are incredibly corrupted by money, and citizens are dumbed down by blatant propaganda. We can say we are free, but are we really free? Are we just rattling our chains believing we are free? Bernie will be no different than other politicians. I genuinely believe there are some who start with good intentions, but end up no better than the rest. I almost feel as if come election time, we merely vote for a new slave master. We have hungry children, homeless vets, health & education costs are absolutely ridiculous, and so many are blinded by the bs these politicians spew. We're in an age where our rights are slowly being taken, yet people are more concerned with what the Kardashians are doing. I wish people would take the blindfold off, and truly realize what's happening in the government.

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  6. ¿Because you did not follow with sweet 75? was a good band

    sorry for me shitty english

  7. I've read most of Citizens United (much of the 1st half is junk). The problem with it is it opened the floodgates to corporate spending in elections as everyone knows. Kris noted some positive holdings on transparency etc. We need a Constitutional Amendment to make clear that cortporations are not people. the Bill of Rights protects the rights of individuals, not masses of them! I am voting for Sanders as the best choice by far. A good second choice is Martin O'Malley. He's similar in his positions but doesnt have the experience Sanders has. My guess is Sanders is going to win by a landside.

  8. So internet freedom is junk? You also say, "the Bill of Rights protects the rights of individuals, not masses of them" You forget the 1st Amendment in the Bill of Rights which protects freedom of speech for individuals and groups. Corporations are groups of people. Groups of people ought to have rights. These vague proposals to amend the US Constitution are misguided and dangerous. Do you really want to take rights away from groups? So if you and I want to start a political party or advocacy groups, we should have no rights? Dear Robert, you really need to think this through. You Berners scare the fuck out of me.