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Pierce writes: "The Supreme Court's decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has deformed our politics in a thousand different ways."

(image: fsfreestatenow)
(image: fsfreestatenow)

Beast of Citizens United Slouches Forward

By Charles Pierce, Esquire Magazine

04 July 12


orty years ago next March, Richard Nixon sat down in the Oval Office with his White House counsel, John Dean, to talk over a problem he was having with some former employees of his campaign. These employees had been caught the previous June breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee as part of an ongoing program of espionage and sabotage so extensive that Attorney General John Mitchell, not a field of buttercups on his best day, called it "the White House horrors." Now it was nearly a year later. As captured by the White House tapes, the exchange makes it clear that their silence was getting expensive:

PRESIDENT NIXON: How much money do you need?

DEAN: I would say these people are going to cost a million dollars over the next two years. [Short pause.]

PRESIDENT NIXON: We could get that.

DEAN: Mm-hmm.

PRESIDENT NIXON: If you — on the money, if you need the money, I mean, you could get the money fairly easily.

A million dollars. For hush money. To cover up political sabotage.

At the time, the very idea of that conversation, and the amount of money mentioned, horrified the nation. The money itself, secret and laundered through Mexican banks, seemed to be as much an affront to American democracy as the activities that it financed. It sounds so quaint today.

The Supreme Court's decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has deformed our politics in a thousand different ways. Super PACs, entities made possible by the decision, had raised $220 million by the beginning of June, from sources as anonymous as were the ones who raised the money to pay off the burglars. One man, Joe Ricketts, threw $250,000 into a Senate primary in Nebraska at the last minute and bought the nomination for a woman named Deb Fischer. In 2010, when the House of Representatives changed hands, more than a billion dollars was spent on House campaigns, much of it anonymous. Millionaire cranks have been empowered; imagine what politics would have been like if, back in the 1950s, Robert Welch and the John Birch Society could have spent $100 million on campaign commercials instead of buying a few billboards. Earl Warren would have been back cooling his heels in California within a month.

But this is perhaps the most shameful thing of all. Citizens United has made all the crimes that we lumped together and called Watergate — the crimes that Dean and Nixon needed a measly $1 million of untraceable cash to cover up, thereby committing another crime in the process — utterly unnecessary. Why waste your time putting together a covert dirty-tricks operation when you can simply raise $50 million for attack ads that are just as truthless, and far more effective, than forging a letter that makes Ed Muskie lose it on TV? Why bother dreaming up ways to defraud your opponents and confuse their voters when you can lavish money on state legislatures in order to pass voter-identification laws that suppress turnout more effectively than any of Donald Segretti's penny-ante schemes ever did? Why plot in secret when you can bundle up your millions and invent a super PAC with a cool-sounding name to spread it far and wide? Anonymous corporate money is the coin of the realm now. It doesn't have to spend time in a Mexican bank to get itself clean. What Citizens United did was to privatize political corruption at a level so wide and so deep that the corruption is now the system itself. The only anomalous thing in our politics now is the truth.

Mitt Romney may be the perfect candidate for the new era — a person of great wealth himself who also is completely a creature of the world from which this great flood of anonymous money and unaccountable power has come roaring down on a fragile political system. He is in every way the rough beast that Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens predicted in his formidable dissent inevitably would slouch toward Iowa to be born:

[The] conclusion that the societal interest in avoiding corruption and the appearance of corruption does not provide an adequate justification for regulating corporate expenditures on candidate elections relies on an incorrect description of that interest, along with a failure to acknowledge the relevance of established facts and the considered judgments of state and federal legislatures over many decades.... At bottom, the Court's opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.

He is in every way the living embodiment of what President Barack Obama said in his first State of the Union Address when, in what may go down as the finest moment of his presidency, he looked straight into the eyes of the justices who had broken a century's worth of settled law into splinters and thereby had fastened in place everything a rising plutocracy needed to attach itself to the government of the country, and told them, "Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems."

Obama's overmatched now. His super PAC, Priorities USA Action, managed by former Obama aide Bill Burton and old Clinton hand Paul Begala, is struggling to get by, in part because even his tepid attempts to reform the criminality on Wall Street were enough to outrage the gentle souls in our financial-services industries, and he hasn't been able to put the touch on the same people who helped him rather lavishly last time. By May 1, it had raised a little more than $10.5 million, a quarter of the sum raised by Romney's Restore Our Future.

Meanwhile, on the other side, the sheer level of monetized rage being directed at him is positively staggering. The Koch brothers alone have said they are willing to spend $400 million to ensure the president's defeat. A casino mogul named Sheldon Adelson has said he's in for $100 million.

The money renders analysis useless. At the end of May, Romney spent a day hanging around with Donald Trump in Las Vegas. Commentators were baffled. What could Romney possibly gain from his proximity to a sideshow freak like Trump? The point, however, was that it didn't matter. Romney can do anything and he can say anything because there is nothing he can do or say, no mistake he can make, that the money now available to him in politics can't buy him out of. There was a strange, stilted quality to the Republican primary process this year, in no small part because everybody pretended there actually was a process, and not a simple transaction. People pretended that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — and even, God help us, Herman Cain — had a chance when everybody knew that, sooner or later, Mitt Romney's money would get around to burying them all in turn. It was like watching the eye of Sauron descend upon the landscape. It's hard to see how that dynamic doesn't repeat itself this fall. Public corruption has a new name. It is now called "elections."

Right about the same time that Romney was cruising the Strip with the Donald, the long and complicated trial of former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards came to an inconclusive verdict down in North Carolina. Edwards was charged with violating some arcane provisions of the very campaign-finance laws that the Supreme Court had ruled violated the free-speech rights of, say, Exxon-Mobil. Thus had the whole trial been rendered a sad farce. In the context of a Supreme Court — granted political system of anonymous cash and ritualized bribery that would have embarrassed the Borgias, jurors were being asked to determine whether poor old Bunny Mellon had given Edwards $725,000 to help stash away his pregnant mistress as a campaign donation, or simply to help out a friend. Were I on the jury, I'd have voted to acquit, and I'd have mailed the slip of paper on which I'd written my verdict to John Roberts. COD. your social media marketing partner
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