A case in point is last January’s Citizens United decision in which the Supreme Court held, among other things, that corporations and unions may finance campaign commercials in the weeks before an election. Most liberals reacted with visceral disgust. This New York Times editorial captured their mood: “Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court’s conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding."
Although I would have joined Justice Stevens’s dissent were I on the Supreme Court, I couldn’t manage to be appropriately alarmed by the way Citizens United came out. As I argued here, while there’s plenty of reason to be bothered by the influence of money on democratic elections, the financing of publicly attributable political speech is probably the most benign form that influence can take. So I don’t expect that letting corporations and unions finance campaign commercials in the run up to an election will do much to impair the integrity of the political process (such as it is). I can even imagine its doing a little bit of good by diverting money from more malign into more benign ways of exerting influence. In any case, I can’t manage to pretend along with the Times' editors that the majority didn’t have a colorable legal rationale for its decision.
Last night’s run-off election in the Arkansas Democratic senatorial primary didn’t give me any reason to change my mind. Blanche Lincoln managed to win the nomination even though national unions poured a ton of money into a small political market to defeat her. That suggests to me that voter preferences aren’t as sensitive to well-financed media campaigns as liberals usually presume. But that’s one more example of my eccentric ideological reflexes.
Consider how, according to Ben Smith, one person inside the Obama administration was crowing anonymously about Lincoln’s victory (my emphasis):
Notice that it apparently never occurred to this liberal that money can’t buy elections. The lesson of Lincoln’s victory is that there are more or less efficient ways of buying them, and the unions hadn’t gotten the optimal bang for their bucks.“A senior White House official just called me with a very pointed message for the administration's sometime allies in organized labor, who invested heavily in beating Blanche Lincoln, Obama's candidate, in Arkansas.
"'Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise,’ the official said. ‘If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November.’
“Lincoln relied heavily both on Obama's endorsement, which she advertised relentlessly on radio and in the mail, and on the backing of former President Bill Clinton, who backed her to the hilt.
“Lincoln foe Bill Halter had the unstinting support of the AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME and other major unions. And labor officials Tuesday evening were already working to spin the narrow loss of their candidate, Bill Halter, as a moral victory, but the cost in money and in the goodwill of the White House may be a steep price to pay for a near miss.”
All of this reminds me of the way liberals like John Kenneth Galbraith used to talk about corporate power in the 1960s. Don’t take my word for it because I can’t find my old copy of The New Industrial State to check my memory, but I recall Galbraith saying that the behavior of large corporations is relatively insensitive to market forces because, among other things, consumer demand is largely an artifact of corporate-financed advertising. Neo-classical economists didn’t understand how large corporations behave, he argued, because they mistakenly presume “consumer sovereignty,” that is, that market demand exists independently of corporate power. On that assumption, firms survive and prosper by discovering what consumers want and figuring out more efficient ways than their competitors to satisfy those wants. But modern corporations like General Motors, Galbraith assured us, are powerful enough to manufacture not only cars, but demand for the kinds of cars they want to sell.
I sometimes contemplate Galbraith’s thesis from behind the wheel of my Nissan.