Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek
Byline: Jonathan Alter
Dick Durbin's got a good idea.
The year 2010 is already a nightmare for progressives, and it's only January. In one week alone, the health-care bill derailed, the liberal radio network Air America went silent, and the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment allows corporations to pump as much money as they want into political campaigns. I've got no answers on the first two, but a few suggestions for avoiding despair on the third, the most serious threat to American democracy in a generation.
In a devastating decision, the high court cleared the way for one of those corporate takeovers you read about, only much bigger. If Exxon wants to spend $1amillion (a bar tab for Big Oil) defeating an environmentalist running for city council, it can now do so. If Goldman Sachs wants to pay the entire cost of every congressional campaign in the U.S., the law of the land now allows it. The decision frees unions, too, but they already spend about as much as they can on politics. Fortune 100 firms currently spend only a fraction of 1 percent of their $605 billion in annual profits on buying politicians.
This didn't have to happen. The court was asked to rule on whether the Federal Election Commission had the right to regulate a corporate-backed outfit called Citizens United that made the conservative film Hillary: The Movie. But instead of ruling narrowly, the Roberts Court--in a new standard for judicial hypocrisy--struck down the laws of 22 states and the federal government.
So it's on. The Citizens United case is the Roe v. Wade of the 21st century, only the roles are reversed. Conservatives who bashed liberal judges for "legislating from the bench" and disrespecting precedent are now exposed as unprincipled poseurs. Liberals who grew up depending on courts to protect the public interest must now build a mass movement to confront the greatest accumulation of corporate power since the age of the robber barons.
At his confirmation hearings, John Roberts said, "Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them." He repeated his belief in judicial restraint and the importance of precedent. So what did his court do? It gutted more than a century of law that barred direct corporate expenditures on behalf of politicians. And it slam-dunked GOP stalwarts like Teddy Roosevelt, Robert Taft (his 1947 Taft-Hartley Act limited outside campaign expenditures), and, yes, John McCain. …