Media Watch: Campaign Finance and Slavery

Dredd Scott and Citizens United cases have something in common: they were both a challenge against government suppression of natural rights.  The validity of the comparison ends there. But apparently not for some legislators and newspaper pundits with axes to grind.
Last week, Rep. Ed Markey of Massachussets compared the Citizens United decision to the Dred Scott decision.  While we could write at length about how it’s ill-advised for politicians to compare a ruling that said the government does not  have the right to ban books and movies because they contain political content as though it were on par with a ruling that affirmed slavery, some of the media’s attempts to take the analogy further is much more interesting.
Farah Stockman, a columnist at the Boston Globe, decided this argument had some merit.  In her column “Two rulings that benefited a powerful few,” she writes:
…“Slave owners were rich. They were a minority. They were corrupting the political process.”

The slave system channeled the vast majority of wealth into the hands of fewer than 2,000 aristocratic families. Seventy-five percent of whites in the South did not own a single slave, and did not appreciate competing with unpaid labor. Yet, somehow, this tiny cabal of plantation owners convinced Congress and the Supreme Court to uphold slavery. Ultimately, they convinced the masses to fight and die for it.

We wonder now what Jedi mind trick they performed to get people to act against their own self interest, just as future generations might wonder how so many of us got convinced that campaign finance reform — and health care, for that matter — was a threat to our freedom.

Citizens United makes it impossible for states to limit money’s influence over politics within their borders, just like the Dred Scott case made it impossible to forbid slavery on their soil.

She continues:

At its core, Dred Scott was about whether the country could remain half-slave and half-free. The answer was no. Slavery would cross state borders and infect everyone. Citizens United was about whether half the country can curb the influence of money in politics.

Ms. Stockman missed several very important details.  For example, in this dark period of American history, only white, land-owning males had the right to vote.  The entire point of restricting voting to this group was to ensure that the aristocracy was disproportionately represented in Congress.  The masses were not convinced to fight and die for slavery, they were forced to in a system corrupt because it limited what should’ve been a universal right to only a select few.
This makes for a ripe comparison to modern campaign finance reform.  What Ms. Stockman overlooks in her analysis is that before the Citizens United decision, individuals were allowed to make independent expenditures advocating for or against a candidate.  In reality, only the incredibly affluent were able to utilize this particular right.  However, the Citizens United ruling, coupled with the decision, allowed groups to form that solicite money for and engage in independent expenditures.  Suddenly, the not-incredibly-affluent could band together in an organization to engage in independent political speech without limit, opening up a domain once reserved for only the very wealthy for all Americans.
At its core, Citizens United was about whether the country could  arbitrarily limit political speech rights.  The answer was, and will continue to be, no.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.