The only sure things in life, Benjamin Franklin should have said, are death, taxes and campaign-finance reform. Trying to keep money out of politics is like trying to keep a basement dry in New Orleans, which made the issue a perfect subject for the Supreme Court: nothing revs up Justices like a symbolic fight over an intractable issue. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court struck down certain limits on corporate campaign spending--upholding the First Amendment or selling American politics into bondage, depending on your view.
Some backstory: in 2008 the conservative nonprofit Citizens United produced the anti-Clinton film Hillary: The Movie and arranged to distribute it using money from the group's corporate treasury rather than from its political-action committee--a crucial distinction under the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reforms of 2002. In a 5-4 ruling, the court found that distinction unconstitutional. If freedom of speech protects the right of individuals to air their political views, it decided, then that right extends to incorporated groups--like businesses, labor unions, Planned Parenthood and Citizens United.
The case sparked a clash of worldviews. "The right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak and to use information to reach consensus is a precondition to enlightened self-government and a necessary means to protect it," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority. A law declaring who can say what about elected officials, and how and when, did not pass muster. On the other side, Justice John Paul Stevens' 90-page dissent spoke admiringly of McCain-Feingold and shuddered to imagine the influence that big corporations and Big Labor might exercise over politics in the absence of such efforts. The ruling, he wrote, "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation."
There is an obvious tension between freedom of speech and the danger of some voices drowning out all others. But Kennedy's world of stifled corporations and voiceless labor unions bears little resemblance to the one we live in. At the same time, Stevens' picture of corporate fat cats oppressing the little guy ignores the revolutions in campaign finance and communications wrought by the Internet. The Justices' hyperbole aside, chances are that the 2010 congressional midterm elections will be little changed: a blend of big-money manipulation and grass-roots passion, in which all the players share one common complaint--that the other guy has too much power.