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Date archive for: January 2010

Citizens United and Those Dastardly Labor Unions

The United States Supreme Court rolled back decades of campaign finance restrictions today, handing down a decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that

upends the court’s precedent that corporations may not use their profits to support or oppose candidates, and it rejects a large portion of the so-called McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act that the justices had declared constitutional just six years ago. It seems likely to apply to the political role of labor unions as well.

It’s that last line that’s most interesting when looking at the Internet’s reaction to the ruling. Twitter is buzzing about Citizens United, with “Supreme Court” a trending topic. I’ve been tracking the tweets off and on throughout the morning and they seem to take one of two forms. There are those–like me–who hail the opinion as a breakthrough for free speech and a vindication of the First Amendment. But there’s also a avalanche of tweets breathlessly declaring a new corporate age, when evil businessmen will buy elections and we’ll all be at the mercy of our fat cat, private sector overlords.

Almost nobody mentions the labor unions. I mean, if you’re concerned that the Supreme Court has sold America to General Electric and Exxon, why aren’t you also concerned that it’s handed our political system over to the UAW and the AFL-CIO? Corporations ultimately gain “power” (though what we really mean is “money”) buy selling folks stuff they want to buy. Unions, on the other hand, use the political process to force themselves upon the unwilling. Comcast may want to take over the world, but they have to do it without wielding the awesome legal might of the National Labor Relations Act.

The lack of concern about union money in politics, however, is yet another symptom of a broader problem in American political thought. Namely, we’re quite good at locating the problems in the political process (corrupt politicians and corrupting influences), but we tend to assume those only affect the other guys. When our guys are in control, everything is fine and corruption never enters the picture.

Thus we get the reaction to Citizens United: money from corporations spent promoting candidates or issues is “buying” elections. Money from unions doing the same is simply representing the will of the working class. While I think it’s wrong to see money spent on political speech as corrupting whether it comes from corporations or unions, we’d all be better off if we were at least consistent in our condemnation.