Campaign Finance Law

It almost goes without saying that politics involves big money. This is true now more than ever. On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that the US government may no longer ban certain forms of campaign contributions by corporations. The reasoning was that corporations are entitled to free speech under the first amendment. This ruling overturns Mccain / Feingold campaign finance legislation along with previously set court precedents that set legal limits upon corporate political spending. As a result of this decision the landscape of political public relations and advertising will change drastically.

In many ways it is important that the government not be allowed to censor corporations or inhibit them from doing certain things. Corporate media, for example, must in theory be allowed to report on whatever it sees fit to report upon. Of course the government has censored the media in the past, one notable example being the 18 year ban (1991-2009) on photographic coverage of returning US dead from foreign wars. (Under George W. Bush, whose father instituted the ban during the first Iraq war, this ban was strictly enforced. Mainstream corporate media essentially cooperated without raising a fuss. In some ways this ban is still in place, though restrictions have been loosened so that news agencies can now photograph the arrival of the dead at the Dover base in Delaware, the arrival destination for dead bodies being shipped back from overseas.) But for the most part the first amendment rights of corporate media are held to be important because the role of the news media in providing information to the voting public is essential to the proper functioning of a legitimate democracy.

The main impact that this will have will not be on corporate contributions to specific candidates. These are still more tightly regulated. The real impact will be in the realm of advertising. Corporations will be allowed to spend as much as they want on advertising. Among other things this makes possible smear campaigns of unprecedented ferocity and ubiquity. Large companies interested in the policies of a particular party will basically be able to do their worst to character-assassinate of the opposing party’s candidate. So that, say, a giant company like Exxon Mobil, who will most likely want a republican in office who will work to deregulate the oil industry, can spend as much money as it’s managers see fit for the purpose of getting the right man elected. (While I use Exxon Mobil and the Republican party as an example there is no reason that this will not happen from the left, though the republican party will probably gain more advantage from it as they tend more toward policies that favor big businesses.) Of course, some companies will have to be careful not to tarnish the reputation of their brand and will see negative blowback from their shareholders and their customer base if they try anything too nasty, but nasty intentions can be spun into ostensibly unobjectionable concerns. This bill is a boon to the public relations firms that will be hired to craft corporate propaganda so as to maximize political influence while minimizing public blowback.

According to Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion, there is no principled way to distinguish between media corporations and other corporations. This assertion has two dire implications: A) that non-media corporations should have their freedom of speech protected in the same way as media corporations do, and B) that media corporations (being corporations and not in principle differentiable from others) are legally required by law to gain profit and market share, but not to provide a public service as an objective source of information meant to facilitate better democratic functioning by helping create a well-informed voting public. Corporations will engage in campaigns on behalf of candidates who will not necessarily be connected to them in any way so that the candidates will not be held accountable, and the corporate media will not have an incentive to focus on this aspect because it will not be in their best interests as corporations. It will be more to the benefit of corporate media as corporations to decry dirty politics in general and create a historical narrative of the decline of ethics in political advertising while omitting the court ruling and new corporate behaviors as important factors. This will most likely lead to an alienation of the public from politics in general and a decline in voter turnout, and citizens who do vote will likely be less well-informed.

The situation here has some parallels with the contracting of mercenary companies like Blackwater or private intelligence agencies like Booz Allen Hamilton, in that private companies can use techniques and tactics without being bound by the same laws that bind politicians. The added benefit to politicians here is that they do not even have to contract companies to act on their behalf. Or rather, the contracting is informal and politicians will pay corporations back by way of drafting bills and voting in favor of policies that benefit corporations. There is an obvious quid pro quo here that many see as being tantamount to bribery.

It will be very interesting to see how businesses use their newly granted powers to influence the upcoming mid term elections, and how much reporting will be done by corporate media regarding what is actually happening. I understand that writing about this is not necessarily news because it is not new, but one of the problems with the concept of news is that it consistently focuses on the new at the expense of establishing a coherent and politically relevant historical narrative. A good deal of people will be paying attention to how the mid terms are effected by this, but will it be reported on? Will its relevance ever be established within the mainstream public discourse? Or is it already just old news and not worth making a fuss over any more? Time will tell. Keep an eye out.