Deep in their unconscious, even Trump’s most ardent fans must know that such a colossal liar couldn’t possibly be a reformer. Asked to explain their enthusiasm, they invariably cite his independence. Doubtless many are also drawn to his racism — but corruption is what Trump and his backers talk most about. In any event, the only real reformer in the race is Bernie Sanders. Even he must broaden his message beyond cracking down on Wall Street and repealing Citizens United. All Democratic candidates call for repealing Citizens United. Democratic audiences cheer when they do. Other audiences doze off, and for good reasons.
One reason is that people don’t know what they mean. If you talk about Citizens United or Glass Steagall, you must tell us what they are. The key to campaign finance is discussing how much money flows into the system, where it comes from and how it’s spent. For financial regulation, talk about how without it, banks can bet their depositors’ money — and if they lose big enough, even with Dodd Frank, we taxpayers end up bailing them out.
Another reason is that Democrats who bewail Citizens United so often depict corruption as a right-wing plot of which they themselves are mere victims. Not even the base buys that. Citizens United arrived in 2010. Pay-to-play politics took off in the mid-’70s, right about the time the middle class stopped getting raises. The sad truth is elite Democrats like the current system a lot. Here’s a well-guarded secret: They even see a lot to like in Citizens United.
Poorly written and atrociously reasoned, Citizens United rests on three simple, absurd precepts: Money is speech; corporations are people; and corruption is OK so long as it is sanctioned. OK, the third one isn’t so simple, but it sure is absurd. It pertains to what Justice Kennedy, the opinion’s author, calls “soft” corruption, by which he means the entire system: big donors, lobbyists, lush retreats, revolving doors, exorbitant speaking fees. The whole shebang.
Kennedy says that unlike “hard” corruption (bribery, mainly), “soft” corruption harms and offends no one, so Congress can’t regulate it. The issue hadn’t come up at trial, so there was nothing about it in pleadings. There’s tons of data about how evil it is and how much we hate it, but Kennedy ignored it. He offered no proof to support his “finding.” He just said it was so and now it’s the law.
I’d rate Citizens United the second most corrupt decision in Supreme Court history after Bush v. Gore. Blind partisanship drove Bush v. Gore. Right-wing ideology informs both decisions. But Citizens United’s key findings, that our politics isn’t really corrupt and we don’t care anyway, is neither partisan nor extreme. It is in fact the bipartisan consensus of Washington’s soul-sick, brain-dead establishment.
If you doubt it, consider Barack Obama. In 2008, America was almost as angry at its government as it is today. Then as now, the media and political consultants to both parties were blind to the issue. But Obama and strategist David Axelrod sort of got it. Axelrod wasn’t much for specificity. He preached the “politics of biography” (sell the person, not the policy). So Obama spoke of transforming “Washington’s culture.” It was powerful stuff, but not quite powerful enough.
Voters knew the problem wasn’t “partisan gridlock” but a hammerlock of special interests. They could abide politicians’ incivility but not their corruption. Obama added some policy meat to the metaphorical bone of his message. He called whistle-blowers heroes and vowed to strengthen freedom of information, to let C-SPAN cameras film healthcare negotiations, end no-bid contracts, close revolving doors and never hire lobbyists to handle matters of special concern to their ex-clients. By late fall, nearly every speech he gave ended in a rousing call for reform.
Breaking those vows was the original sin of the Obama administration. No C-SPAN cameras ever filmed a meeting. He didn’t treat whistle-blowers as heroes; he broke records prosecuting them. He didn’t end no-bid contracts; he increased them. He didn’t ban lobbyists; he recruited them. (Healthcare industry consultants drove that team; he even hired a defense lobbyist to oversee Pentagon procurement policy.) Revolving doors kept swinging; every ex-Obama staffer you ever heard of now sits on some comfy corporate perch. Republicans didn’t kill the reforms. Obama had the power to implement each one by executive order, but chose not to.