The One Percent Supreme Court: A Conversation with the Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel

Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, tea-partier, liberal, conservative, or in-between, you’re experiencing an election season unlike any in U.S. history. That’s because the rules on political spending have changed in a billion dollar way.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in the now-infamous Citizens United decision that corporations must be treated the same as people when it comes to political speech. The Court said the ban on using corporate cash to endorse or oppose political candidates (in place since 1947) was unconstitutional. The ruling freed them up to spend money both on “electioneering communications” and advocating for the election or defeat of candidates — so long as they don’t actually put the money in the candidate’s palm.

A few weeks after Citizens United, a lower court joined the festivities by ruling that certain political action committees could also accept unlimited contributions for so-called “independent” expenditures. So as not to leave anybody out, individual donors were included too. The Super PAC was born.

By mid September 2012 Super PACs aligned with Republicans had already spent $83 million on attack ads against President Obama, while pro-Obama Super PACs had spent $30 million. One well-heeled Republican donor, Sheldon Adelson, has vowed to personally spend $100 million to influence the 2012 elections.

Is all this good for democracy? What can we do about it? On September 20, The Nation attempts an answer in a special issue titled “The 1% Court,” with an introduction by Bill Moyers, who has spoken out repeatedly against Citizens United. I talked about those questions and others around corporate influence on the Court and the government itself with Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, on my radio show Equal Time With Martha Burk.

MB: Let’s go back to when this got rolling — the mid-term elections in 2010. Only 15% of the money spent was a result of Citizens United because it was a brand-new ruling. You wrote in the Washington Post that 2010 was a test case. Conservatives and their corporate allies were “dipping their toes in the water, gauging the legal boundaries of the new landscape. They liked what they found.”

KvH: They certainly did. We’ve seen a 427% increase in spending since 2010. We’re looking at a presidential election with a price tag expected to reach over $2 billion. Overarching all of this is a dramatic assault on American democracy and the fundamental principle of one person, one vote.

MB: Some have tried to make the case that Citizens United isn’t that harmful, because most of the money coming into the Super PACs 2012-06-12-yourvoicesmallest2.JPGisn’t from corporations or unions, but from individuals like Adelson. Just ordinary people giving to causes and trying to elect candidates they like.

KvH: We are witnessing the derugulation of campaign finance – the scaffolding that was erected to protect people from the barrage of big corporate money. A moment where corporate power is virtually unchecked. It’s a fundamental concept of how you balance interests. The Koch brothers are the poster boys of this anti-people campaign finance structure.

MB: Has Citizen’s United sparked a counter movement.?

KvH: We had a week of people across this country — called Resolutions Week — where legislators in cities and counties have approved resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics, to overturn Citizens United. A constitutional amendment is a heavy lift. But it’s a long-term goal around which to organize and agitate.

MB: Many people don’t realize is that you can’t find out who is paying for these ads [unless the donor discloses it voluntarily].

KvH: Anonymity is so destructive. And it may well be that Americans will get most of their information from attack ads because local news has been cut back, and it’s very dangerous.

MB: One reform that has been mentioned is that if a corporation runs these ads, the CEO has to come on and say “I’m [for example] Jamie Dimon and I approved this message.”

KvH: I love that because there’s all this talk about taking responsibility, so make that CEO whose corporation is pumping money in take that responsibility.

MB: Does the media have a role here?

KvH: We have not seen the corporate broadcast media play a constructive role. The money is so huge, the media is complicit in this financial-campaign-industry complex. It’s going to require agitation and exposure.

MB: All kinds of other races are being polluted by this money – down ticket races and ballot initiatives.

KvH: Yes. In the short term – as a minimum – we need disclosure, disclosure, disclosure.

MB: What is the most important thing voters ought to be paying attention to this year in regard to money in politics?

KvH: Voting is the first step. Accountability, engagement, movement pressure. The fight for an amendment, for a more democratic country is not an easy one. It demands engagement.