Dialling for Dollars

Deborah Friedell

  • Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United by Zephyr Teachout
    Harvard, 376 pp, £22.95, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 674 05040 2

My mother once worked for a large American chemical corporation. When it made her an executive, all the usual things happened: she got a bigger office, and share options. She was no longer allowed to travel with more than a few other senior employees, to minimise the loss to the company if the plane went down. And among her new responsibilities, she was ‘invited’ to have ‘voluntary contributions’ deducted from her salary: payments to the company’s political action committee. A law prevented corporations from giving money to politicians directly, but it could be circumvented by having employees give their own money to the senators and congressmen, governors and state legislators who might be able to help the company – when it came to setting tariffs, for example, or drawing up environmental regulations.

None of this was unusual or secret. Shareholders expected the company to do everything it could, within the limits of the law, to get its way in Washington. And in recent years, as some of those limits have disappeared, shareholders have been able to expect even more to be done for them. In Corruption in America, Zephyr Teachout argues that until recently it was assumed that political donations threatened republican virtue, and so the courts embraced a ‘particularly demanding notion of corruption’. The diamond snuffbox that Benjamin Franklin brought back from France, a present from Louis XVI, troubled Congress: a gift wasn’t necessarily a bribe, but it could become one. Laws governing how much money individuals and organisations could give to politicians were prophylactics, designed – however imperfectly – to prevent corruption by limiting how much money could change hands. Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court ‘effectively gave wealthy individuals and wealthy corporations the right to spend as much money as they wanted attempting to influence elections and policy’. The result, as Teachout sees it, is that the United States has almost ceased to function as a representative democracy. Wealthy donors have become so powerful that ‘candidates and elected officials work for their donors as opposed to the public.’

Teachout, who was one of the leaders of Howard Dean’s campaign to win the Democratic nomination in the presidential election of 2004, teaches law at Fordham University. Last year, she ran against Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York. In more than 90 per cent of American elections, the politician who raises the most money wins. Teachout raised around $800,000; Cuomo raised more than $40 million. She hadn’t expected to beat him: she ran to needle the party, and to draw attention to the subject of campaign finance reform. Until the country fixes the way it funds elections, she doesn’t think it’ll be able to fix much else.

In 2008, before Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to Obama, a conservative group called Citizens United (it describes itself as ‘an organisation dedicated to restoring our government to citizens’ control’) produced Hillary: The Movie, a ninety-minute profile of a psychopath out to destroy America. It’s not much of a film, just old news footage and clips of pundits describing the Hillary they know: a ruthless crypto ‘European socialist’ who would transform American healthcare into something more ‘like what citizens in the UK and Canada experience’. Citizens United wanted to broadcast Hillary: The Movie through a video-on-demand service, but they were blocked by the Federal Election Commission because of a law prohibiting corporations from broadcasting campaign commercials within thirty days of a presidential primary. Citizens United sued, claiming that since Hillary: The Movie was a film and not a commercial, they should be allowed to show it whenever they liked. Before the case made it to the Supreme Court, what was at stake seemed to be awfully narrow: was Hillary: The Movie actually a movie? But the court didn’t rule narrowly. Instead, it held that it was unconstitutional for the FEC to prevent Citizens United – or indeed almost any association – from spending its own money (as much as it wanted) on political campaigning (whenever it liked). After all, what is a political campaign but an attempt to communicate, ergo a kind of speech, and isn’t free speech protected by the constitution? According to the court, the government shouldn’t be preventing the ‘voices and viewpoints’ of any American or group of Americans ‘from reaching the public and advising voters on which persons or entities are hostile to their interests’. There would no longer be any limit to the amount of money a corporation could spend in furtherance of political ‘speech’.

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