Citizens United, or Citizens United v. FEC, is a 2010 case in which the Supreme Court struck down limits to independent political expenditures on First Amendment freedom of speech grounds. The ruling didn’t affect lobbying activities and direct contributions to political parties and candidates that continue to be subject to regulation. It allowed individuals, corporations, and labor unions to spend what they wanted to enter the public debate about politics and policy that inevitably surrounds elections and their campaigns. It gave rise to what has become a household term — “super PAC”.
The decision led to a torrent of criticism, mainly from the left. The essence was Citizens United enhanced political inequality by amplifying the voices of corporations and the rich. President Obama said at the time “this ruling strikes at the heart of democracy. Indeed, the amount of such independent spending skyrocketed — “outside group” expenditures associated with presidential elections tripled from 2008 to 2012 — much of it advocating conservative-type policies and candidates. The presidential election saw an interesting decline, a “Trump effect,” if you will.
The First Amendment says nothing about equal speech, just that you can’t prohibit it. The Constitution surely places a larger burden on the opponents of the decision than its supporters. But let’s assume Citizens United poses a challenge to our democracy. Certain people and groups, by dint of their wealth, can make greater contributions to public debate than others. They join what John Adams called a “natural aristocracy,” a class of people distinguished by their ability to influence others’ votes — a class already populated by educators and media, which are dominated by the left.
But it’s critical to remember the behavior permitted by Citizens United — like other forms of salutary free speech — takes the form of persuasion, not coercion. It allows individuals to make a case to large numbers of people. There’s no cost to rejecting the appeal. Surely political action designed to compel others to take a public position on a matter of policy or cast a vote for a particular candidate is considerably more harmful. Democracies should embrace advocacy but reject force.
Yet force is everywhere in politics today, much of it designed to exert economic pressure. Liberals across the country have organized efforts to make North Carolinians who support House Bill 2 change their views or face economic harm. Businesses connected with Trump are threatened if they don’t disassociate from his administration. Those who ran Super Bowl ads implicitly critical of his agenda face reprisals from the other side. The aim is to punish and constrain freedom. Economic and political liberties are inextricable. As Milton Friedman noted, free commerce allows humans to enjoy social and financial gains from exchange without letting political differences get in the way. Using economics as a political tool leads us down the road to authoritarianism.
Groups use intimidation in ways other than economic boycotts. The ostensible goal of the new left-wing anti-Trump “Indivisible” movement is to execute, like the Tea Party before it, a full-court press on members of Congress. But its greatest wish is to embarrass and harass non-conforming citizens — who we perhaps might call “deplorables” — into silence.
The target isn’t always people with whom they disagree. Such groups also attack their own. Those who reject orthodoxy become pariahs. Pro-life women were barred from the marches immediately following the Trump inauguration because the organizers, as self-proclaimed definers of female identity, believed they weren’t “woman” enough.
Alexis de Tocqueville warned Americans of such “tyranny” nearly 200 years ago. He saw a tendency to evangelize and bully. All of this seems fresh and particularly intense again. We are deeply divided, in a kind of political “war.” For many who profess to embrace free speech, there’s no longer room for broad and reasoned debate, for independence of thought.
Although they constitute a naked effort to compel subjects to behave in a particular way, these kinds of politics are surely protected under the Constitution. Besides, in practice, how would effective regulation work? The left therefore turns gleefully to advocacy and the ability of its opponents to make their case — something conservatives must do directly because the media, education establishment, and other “privileged” citizens with state-funded or protected megaphones won’t. Citizens’ United facilitates broad public discussion of parties, candidates, and policies. But in the logic of the new left’s morality, it’s more harmful than efforts to force Americans how to think and act.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He doesn’t speak for the university.