From Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s speech last night:
I believe that our economy isn’t working the way it should because our democracy isn’t working the way it should.
That’s why we need to appoint Supreme Court justices who will get money out of politics and expand voting rights, not restrict them. And we’ll pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United!
Let’s get her line of reasoning straight: The economy is in the tank because the democratic process is corrupted; the nature of that corruption lies in the amount of money involved in politics and elections; to fix democracy, and thus the economy, it is therefore necessary to overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Understood?
Of course, we can call a constitutional amendment that overturns Citizens United by another name: a repeal of the First Amendment. The consequence of Citizens United, that corporations can spend without limit on independent political advocacy, flows directly from the First Amendment guarantees that free speech and association will not be abrogated by the government. A corporation is a legal entity that represents an association of people. People who associate in the form of a corporation do not lose their First Amendment right to free speech — a right which includes spending money to make a commercial, for instance, about the upcoming election.
Citizens United affirms this principle in consonance with the First Amendment. A constitutional amendment that overturns Citizens United would literally be a constitutional amendment that repeals the First Amendment.
Clinton’s promise to do so was an applause line.
It is not so difficult to figure out where her zeal to overturn this case comes from, since the dispute which occasioned the case was over a negative movie that Citizens United made about the now-nominee. But everything else about this line invites incredulity. What is the relation between campaign finance laws and the economy? It is certainly not a material relation, and to posit an abstract connection is to spout a series of pure ideological contrivances. What is involved with overturning Citizens United? Thinking through the consequences of such an amendment involves envisioning a world in which newspapers cannot have editorial boards, lest these corporations spend money advancing a political viewpoint. Why is a vow to repeal the First Amendment drawing so much applause? Gutting something essential to democracy would hardly preserve democracy.
Most mystifying of all, though, is why Hillary Clinton would inveigh against the effect Citizens United is having on our elections in the midst of an election in which the case is having little effect. Her primary opponent’s success without super PACs was a display of how voters do not simply gravitate toward the candidate with the most money. Sanders’s message resonated. If one affirms that corporate spending drowns out democracy, then one has to conclude Clinton’s victory over him is a democratically illegitimate result spurred on by her vast financial reservoir. But if one understands that democracy thrives when there is more political speech, not less, then one will see Clinton’s victory as a legitimate triumph. A similar point can be made about her opponent from the Republican party, who currently outpaces Clinton in the polls despite basically nonexistent support from allied super PACs. Donald Trump’s rise, like it or flee, has been a visible repudiation of the conventional wisdom that independent, corporate political expenditures will suppress the people’s will.
Asserting that the First Amendment is corrupting elections is provably false. Promising to repeal the First Amendment on the grounds that it will fix the economy is a non sequitur. And the applause that this bundle of absurdities was met with is as disquieting as anything that was heard in Cleveland.