It’s hard to pinpoint when, exactly, American politics became so negative, but it’s pretty clear that the days of bipartisanship started dying somewhere around the time of the Eisenhower Administration. The 2012 campaign season has been perhaps the nastiest so far, and the lack of respect given to opposing political viewpoints has become the norm, rather than the exception (recall Republican Representative Joe Wilson blurting out “You lie!” at the 2009 State of the Union address in the middle of Barack Obama’s speech). It prompted me to start wondering–how did it get this way?
The first problem is that negativity works. Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s political advisor, famously sunk fellow Republican John McCain in the Republican Primary in 2000 with a whisper campaign right before the South Carolina Primaries regarding McCain having an illegitimate child with a woman of African American dissent…a double whammy in the increasingly conservative GOP, and a move that catapulted W into the frontrunner position after weak showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The second problem now is that there are few, if any, limits to free speech rights given to corporations and Super PACs. While free speech is a founding element of our country, I can’t imagine that our founding fathers intended it to be representing corporations like Exxon Mobil that rake in $40 billion a year in profits and pour piles of that money into influencing public policy. Turns out, it was a Supreme Court case…and a particular set of Justices….that really blew the doors open.
The Supreme Court case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (commonly referred to as Citizens United) gave raise to the SuperPACs that now are bombarding airways with toxic negativity. By ruling that corporations are people and as such can give unlimited amounts of money to influence public opinion and elections, the Supreme Court effectively opened the door to the flood of corporate money and unlimited donations by billionaires that can now freely flow into the public sphere.
Citizens United (and therefore the course of politics in the U.S.) was decided by a slim 5-4 majority of Supreme Court Justices:
Justices who voted for (and the Presidents who nominated them to the Supreme Court):
John Roberts (George W. Bush-Republican)
Samuel Alito (George W. Bush-Republican)
Antonin Scalia (Ronald Reagan-Republican)
Clarence Thomas (George H.W. Bush-Republican)
Anthony Kennedy (Ronald Reagan-Republican)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Bill Clinton-Democrat)
Stephen Breyer (Bill Clinton-Democrat)
Sonia Sotomayor (Barack Obama-Democrat)
John Paul Stevens (Gerald Ford-Republican)
It was essentially a party-line vote. Stevens (since retired), the lone crossover, was appointed in a time that is very different than today’s political climate and he has been viewed historically as relatively moderate. The party benefitting from the Citizens United decision the most is the one with the biggest ties to wealthy individuals and corporations that historically spend a lot of money lobbying congress. For evidence, just consider the Wisconsin recall earlier this year, in which Republican Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting methods caused an uproar among citizens, enough to call for a recall, but with unlimited funds, Walker outspent his Democratic opponent 7-to-1, with some 80-90% of his money coming from outside Wisconsin, and survived the recall effort with…negative ads.
While both parties now must play the game, the Republican party is the clear winner from the Citizens United decision. The decision gives disproportionate power to corporations and the ultra-wealthy, and creates an electric environment characterized by unlimited attack ads and toxic negativity that breeds anti-government sentiment.
Justices of the Supreme Court are supposedly unbiased politically, which is why during approval proceedings, you often hear reference to “Litmus tests”…judges are supposed to interpret the law, not create it. However, with Republican appointees making a decision that substantially weakens Democracy of the PEOPLE by the PEOPLE, a law that has clear benefit for the Republican party with strong ties to oil, gas, chemical, and pharmaceutical companies, as well as the wealthiest 1% of people, one has to wonder just how “impartial” these Justices are. The decision was struck down by the Supreme Court of the state of Montana, but the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Montana, a right-leaning state with an independent streak.
Electing a President from the Republican party means the possibility of more heavily conservative Justices being appointed to the Supreme Court. While the Republican party has long used Roe v. Wade to motivate their base to get out and vote so that, presumably the law that made abortion legal can be overturned, the truth is that Conservatives have had a majority in the Supreme Court for many years and have done nothing about Roe v. Wade. They have, however, through Citizens United, opened the floodgates for unlimited contributions by corporations and billionaires to create this toxic political environment where money equals power and the influence of money on politics has grown exponentially.
The GOP is far more dependent on SuperPAC money than Democrats are, and is clearly benefiting more this political season from the unlimited funding being poured in by fossil fuel, extractive, and financial industries, further underscoring how critical this Supreme Court decision was.
So the next time your stomach is turned by a toxic political attack ad, take a moment to thank President Reagan and the two President Bush’s for their ultraconservative nominations to the Supreme Court. Then think about your vote for 2012.
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