Citizens Divided: Why the Latest Verdict on Campaign Finance is Bad for Women

Campaign finance reform is famously one of the most convoluted and complicated issues in politics. But there’s nothing ambiguous about the most recent development in the long saga of regulating campaign contributions: the Citizens United decision. It’s bad for progressives, and bad for women.

Last week’s ruling reverses previous limitations on corporate spending, and allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns based on the legally shaky premise that corporations’ “speech” should be protected by the First amendment.

But, as David Kairys points out on Slate in one of the most persuasive arguments against the ruling I’ve read so far, money isn’t speech and corporations aren’t people. He sums up the consequences of the Court’s latest decision like this:

The Citizens United decision will make it harder to achieve reforms opposed by major corporations and change business as well as politics. Increasing the constitutional rights of corporations beyond their business purposes is really about increasing the rights and power of corporate managers…Taken as a whole, the conservative court’s First Amendment jurisprudence has enlarged the speech rights available to wealthy people and corporations and restricted the speech rights available to people of ordinary means and to dissenters.

And he’s not the only one highlighting these consequences. The NY Times reports that President Obama called it “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
So we already know that the decision is bad for “everyday Americans”. Many have argued that it’s bad for democracy. But what effect will it have on women?

I’m sorry to say, it’s not looking good, for a few reasons:

1) The “powerful interests” that Barack Obama and others have deemed most poised to benefit from this ruling, namely big business and corporations, are overwhelmingly male and conservative. This ruling means their influence will increase, which will make it even harder for women and progressives to thrive in the political landscape. Translation: you can expect to see even less representation. How do we expect to increase representation of feminist women’s voices in politics when conservative men have a disproportionate amount of sway?

2) Under the new ruling, women candidates have the potential to be exposed to more scathingly sexist criticism than they already are. We’re already familiar with the disproportionately high amountsof criticism and ridicule female political candidates face when pursuing election, but this ruling increases their risk of facing criticism. The NY Times reports that “The case had unlikely origins” in that it emerged from a case involving “Hillary: The Movie,” an anti-Hillary documentary, but I’d argue these are the most likely origins there are. We don’t have to look far to see the gross double standard and horrific criticism Hillary’s been exposed to during her career, to which her male counterparts have not been introduced to a comparable degree. The Citizens United ruling, both explicitly in its immediate practical consequences for the Hillary documentary, and implicitly in the long-term legal precedent set by the decision, condones corporate-funded attack ads that- if history is to give any indication- disproportionately affect women.

3) The ruling benefits corporate interests, and corporate interests are often anti-feminist. From labor rights and unionization efforts to the environment, more often than not corporate interests get in the way of feminist ones. For more on the intersection of anti-corporatism and feminism, check out Naomi Klein’s self-proclaimed feminist book, No Logo.

Tonight, Barack Obama is slated to give his first State of the Union address. Rumor has it that he will criticize the Citizens United decision, as he did last week. He may not mention women or feminism specifically in his remarks on the subject, but those with feminist sensibilities should support his efforts to criticize and curb the effects of this anti-progressive, anti-feminist ruling.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • PS

    ” The NY Times reports that President Obama called it “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” ”
    Well, one could argue that so far so has Obama’s presidency been a “major victory” for wall stree, health ins. companies and other powerful interests…”

  • Kathleen Hagerty

    See, this is very troubling. The fact that big corporations can buy off politicians is bad enough. This just makes it so much worse. If you ask me, having so much power in the hands of the wealthy few is exactly what the First Amendment was designed to prevent.
    I will be very interested to see if President Obama (still music to my ears, that phrase) addresses this abomination in his speech tonight.

  • bradley

    money isn’t speech and corporations aren’t people

    Money funds expression which is speech (advertisements, documentary films, etc.) and corporations are made up of people. And the First Amendment, you may remember, simply says Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. No qualification there.

  • MiriamCT1

    So yeah, corporations are people, but if this court over turned Roe they would say that women are not people anymore.
    I do not have the words to express how utterly repugnant this decision is. And the thing I don’t get most of all, is while I totally disagree with Roberts, Alito, Thomas and Scalia, they have never struck me as purely stupid, they are bat crazy right wing freak-nuts, but not stupid. So what gives? They KNOW what this decision would mean for the political landscape, they know it overturns like 100 years of legal precedent (so much for respecting that, which was a big thing they all coped to in their senate confirmation hearings, especially Roberts) so I just don’t get it…?
    *shakes head, confused, cries into tea*

  • Anna

    Thank you for this. You made it extremely clear how this Citizens United decision is anti-feminist.

  • bradley

    In 1954, the Supreme Court overturned decades of precedent, including an earlier Supreme Court ruling, and found Jim Crow laws unconstitutional. Are you going to criticize the 1954 court for this?
    Bad precedent should not be respected.

  • analog

    Initially I disagreed with the verdict as well, then I read these two pieces over at
    Cover Your Ears
    Free Speech for Corporations
    The two points that really stuck out for me were:
    1)Media corporations (such as newspapers) are currently exempted from the ban on “electioneering communication.” Why does that make sense? A large multi-million dollar company that prints a newspaper is allowed to endorse a candidate, but a large multi-million dollar company that makes widgets isn’t? And media companies endorse candidates all the time, and the democratic process hasn’t failed.
    2)Corporations ARE made of people. The 1st amendment guarantees the right to free speech and free association. So if a bunch of individuals want to join together (into a corporation) and speak together, why shouldn’t they be able to? It just seems fair.
    Also keep in mind that it isn’t just huge evil companies that are forbidden to speak. Citizens United (the party in the case) is a small(er) advocacy group. If they aren’t allowed to speak, neither can the ACLU or NOW.
    I don’t know what affect this verdict will actually have on the election process. My guess would be not very much. Because companies are going to want to stay away from politics so that they don’t piss off their customers.
    The verdict is fair and sensible, no matter what affect it has. It doesn’t make sense that the government can even begin to control or regulate what any one or any group says about a political candidate. Or when they say it. How is doing so NOT a restriction on speech?

  • Kathleen Hagerty

    I don’t think that I agree with you, Bradley. Simply because when a corporate entity or Big Oil, for example, heavily funds a candidate, if that candidate wins, he/she is beholden to Big Oil and will do Big Oil’s bidding, thus, the real power is in Big Oil’s hands, even though the people who voted didn’t elect Big Oil, they elected the politician in question.
    Also, Let’s take your rationale to an absurd extreme: say, if money=speech and money can come in many forms, such as that of a documentary, as you site, then money can also come in, say, the form of a bomb. So if speech=money and money=bomb, then speech=bomb, and under the first amendment I have the right to free speech, then by the above rationale, I have the right to drop a bomb on someone’s house. However! I do not have a right to drop a bomb on someone’s house, and if I do drop a bomb on someone’s house, I most certainly will be incarcerated. Do you see what I’m getting at here? Money isn’t speech. Because, you see, speech is something that all humans have, regardless of income level, education level, race, sex, gender, etc. If you equate speech with money, than poor people are, well, mute. And that isn’t Free Speech at all.

  • JupiterAmmon

    But such a ruling makes rights to speech vastly disproportionate. It’s no long “free speech” but instead its “all the speech your money can pay for”

  • NellieBlyArmy

    Yes, corporations are made up of people. That does not make a corporation a person anymore than a family is a person or a 5th grade class is a person. There’s a reason you say “group of people” or “corporation” instead of “person.” It’s because a group is not a person.
    Which individuals in the corporation are banding together to make this decision? Do they have to poll the company and make sure 100% of the employees are behind the endorsement? Do only the top ranking employees count? Only the stockholders? Does it have to be all, or a majority? I bet I can count on one hand the cases where every individual within a corporation endorses a specific candidate. In the vase majority of the cases, it is not a group of people banding together to speak together on politics. They’re banding together to make widgets. Politics hopefully never came into the hiring process. So why do only some of the individual corporate people’s political opinions count? Why is it free speech for a minority to claim to know the will of everyone else in the group?

  • bradley

    Free speech is inherently “disproportionate” in the way you describe, regardless of this ruling. That’s because the First Amendment protects the right to express ideas, but not the right to force others to help you broadcast those ideas. Intuitively that means that people who own a means of transmission will always possess an advantage.
    For example, Feministing owns this web server, which gives them “disproportionate” power to express their views, compared to, say, some websiteless feminist-hater. If you think this imbalance is a problem, how to you propose to remedy it? Force the editors here to give equal time to opposing views? I certainly hope not.

  • analog

    Yes exactly. But how is that unfair, and where would you draw the line? Let’s say my neighbor and I both have something to say. So we both get soap boxes, go down to the statehouse, and get started using our free speech rights. But I am not independently wealthy, I have a full-time job. So I can only spend two hours a day screaming on my soap box, the rest of the time I am at work. My neighbor owns a big oil company, and has plenty of money. So he can spend 10 hours a day screaming his views at passerbys. That IS unfair. By your logic, he would have to restrict himself to only 2 hours of screaming, so that I (and my views) are not unfairly disadvantaged because of his wealth.
    It is a fact that some people have more money, and more resources than others. And because of that, they will always be able to get their views out there more effectively. For example, my neighbor can afford a megaphone, so people sitting on the other side of the statehouse lawn can hear him. I can’t, so I just have to rely on the loudness of my own voice, so only people standing nearby can hear me. Do you see where using money to fund speech (or expression) is just an extrapolation of this same principle?
    The real solution would be to somehow publicly fund campaigns, or to somehow get the citizenry more involved in the electoral process so that the amount of money a candidate spends would have less effect on the outcome of a campaign. I have no idea how we would go about doing that, but that would the the ideal.

  • hfs

    You are conflating two concepts: the freedom to speak and the (economic) freedom to purchase distribution for your message. I hope you’d agree that both legal and natural persons should have the former; the government should not be censoring businesses. What the court held, was that denying corporations the latter was tantamount to the former. I agree with the court, and I don’t think that your hypothetical is at all a correct analogy.
    In fact, if you think about it, then even if we do equate the means to obtain distribution with the ability to speak, then speech has never been more possible for the poorly-funded/oppressed than it is now. Back before the internets, only media corporations possessed the tools to reach a wide audience, and if you wanted them to broadcast you, you had best have money and not be too uppity. Now, anyone with a blog can write whatever they want, and with time and effort they can establish a following.

  • hfs

    I agree, there’s definitely something to be said for only using public money to fund campaigns. But that doesn’t solve the problem, as long as wealthy individuals/corporations can speak out in support of a candidate. To combat that you’d have to say that you can’t have political speech unless its publicly funded, which is a road I don’t think anyone wants to go down.
    I think the best solution would be not to restrict spending, but rather, increase the transparency, so if you care to find out you can easily know where the money is coming from.

  • analog

    the best solution would be to … increase the transparency
    Ohhh, excellent point! I completely agree with you. That would absolutely go a long way toward solving this entire problem – without having to curb anyone’s speech!

  • analog

    I can count on one hand the cases where every individual within a corporation endorses a specific candidate.
    I understand what you are saying, but you are forgetting that not all corporations are formed for commercial purposes. Sure Exxon and Wal-Mart are corporations. But so are Citizens United and the ACLU. Non-profit organizations ARE (usually) corporations. Rulings that apply to Exxon also apply to everyone else who banded together and filed articles of incorporation. For a corporation like Citizens United, every individual within the organization probably does endorse the same candidate. Because the corporation exists for just that purpose.
    Many corporations ARE formed just to speak about politics. Do you think these laws/rulings should apply to them as well? Once you start separating out what types of corporations can and cannot speak, where does that end?

  • davenj

    It’s a fair SC decision. What we need now, though, are good, hard transparency laws that make it easy for citizens to be aware of who’s donating to what campaign. Such action will allow us to limit our support of candidates who retain the support of corporate interests we don’t want them to be beholden to.
    Corporations do have the right to free speech. However, we also have the right to accurate monitoring measures in order to dissuade corporations from attempting to disproportionately influence the political process.

  • NellieBlyArmy

    That is true, I forgot about corporations that are based on politics. But that still doesn’t make a corporation a person, and it still doesn’t answer my question of who decides which candidate to endorse. Let’s go ACLU – there’s a Democratic candidate, and a Green party candidate. Democrat agrees with 60% of what the ACLU does, and has a 70% chance of winning. Green agrees with 90%, has a 3% chance. Some members want the Democrat, some what the Green. Who decides whose interests get represented?

  • adag87

    Equating corporations like Exxon vs. the public interest to two neighbors on their soapbox is absurd. First of all, there are still limits on the amount an individual can contribute to campaigns, so why should large corporations be exempt, yet individuals not get their fair say if, say, money = free speech? Enlighten me.
    Campaign finance is a joke. I think in order for this decision to be fair, not only should their be transparency laws, but there should be new laws enacted that caps the amount any campaign can be financed from any source – public, private, individual. period. Money should no longer be a deciding factor in elections. Level the playing field. Decide on political candidates based on their policy decisions, not on which special interest groups decide to sponsor them.

  • bradley

    This decision was not about campaign contributions. It was about political speech funded by corporations. A completely separate set of laws deals with campaign financing.