I love to laugh. I love politics. I have loved several Will Ferrell movies. So going to see The Candidate on a Friday night with my family was a no-brainer.
I am happy to report—while the film is crass—my ninety-minute investment—as well as my butter-laden popcorn—proved quite palatable. What person with a sense of humor doesn’t laugh at the idea of a politician punching a baby?
However, one should know The Campaign also has a fairly transparent agenda in this very real political season, so let me give you the quick low down on this Hollywood hoe down.
Basically you’ve got two politicians running for Congress in North Carolina. The slick Democrat who gets embroiled in a sex scandal reminds one of men like John Edwards. The bumbling Republican has an “accident” while hunting that is reminiscent of Dick Cheney.
During these scenes, I greatly appreciated the movie’s non-partisan portrayal of the hypocritical nature of politicians, the many absurdities of modern day campaigning, and the fickleness of an easily swayed electorate. In fact, the parody was so often on the level of South Park, that I kept waiting for someone to kill Kenny.
If someone ever did do such a thing, it was clear from the start that he would surely have been one of the evil Koch brothers… I mean, Motch brothers.
However, the ultimate message of the movie is that the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United—which is called out by name—was a bad decision because it has injected too much money from the business world into politics.
This is a fair position to take, I suppose, but I left the theatre with the exact opposite view. Hollywood, which injects its money into the political realm all the time without any conflict of conscience proves to me that the Supreme Court got it right.
To review, the Citizens United ruling has become a rallying cry for many on the Left who feel the Court is too ideologically driven, but what did the ruling actually say?
To figure this out I did what everyone should do, dear reader, when the aim is to weigh the validity of ideas expressed in any Supreme Court decision. I went straight to the source and read all 183 pages of Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, including concurrences and dissents.
The experience was educating.
Truly, it is impossible in a short column to expound on all the intricacies of opinions that the Court took 183 pages to describe, but there are some basic points that the majority used to justify its facial ruling.
First one must remember that this whole broo-ha-ha began because Citizens United created a “documentary” about Hillary Clinton that they wanted to make accessible to viewers who requested to see it via video-on-demand within thirty days of a primary election.
Just like many a Michael Moore “documentary” has tried to make citizens believe that the Bush family regularly eats babies covered in oil for breakfast, the Citizens United film had the clear intent of discouraging voters from supporting Senator Clinton. Since Citizens United received some money from corporations—and the 1990 Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce ruling made banning speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity possible—Citizens United might have been violating the law if the movie was released.
Now, don’t get confused.
The right of a corporation to spend money for the purpose of expressing a political viewpoint is very different from the right of a corporation to make a direct contribution to a candidate. The Tillman Act in 1907—as pointed out in the dissent—made these sorts of contributions illegal so as to cut down on the appearance of impropriety—quid pro quo relationships—in the American political system.
The question that the Court tackled in the Citizens United case is whether or not it is Constitutional to deny an entity with specific political interests the right to express those interests based solely on that entity’s form. As the majority opinion states, Citizens United’s problems with the distribution of their film highlighted the fact that “the FEC [had] created a regime that [allowed] it to select what political speech is safe for public consumption by applying ambiguous tests.” The ultimate ruling determined this was not a fair application of the First Amendment.
So I keep hearing some scream that “corporations aren’t people,” but, as the Citizens United ruling points out, media corporations have always enjoyed special exemptions from the law that allow them to engage in whatever political speech they want without censorship.
Of course media corporations are necessary to disseminate information in a democracy, but they can be as involved in the business of making money as any other corporation. They have the same pitfalls of stockholders with diverse opinions that they may not represent in full, and they are often not “fair and balanced” in how they present information.
After all, any Occupy Wall Streeter will tell you, Fox News programs can have an agenda. Fox News is part of News Corporation. So by saying media corporations are exempted from the restrictions imposed on other corporations during an election season, the law is in effect privileging the Fox News agenda.
If News Corporation is “not a person” anymore than a Fortune 100 company is a person, then why should News Corporation enjoy Constitutional rights to free speech that a Fortune 100 company does not?
In addition, for those interested in “fairness,” can you tell me why a corporation that has a media arm, as some do, should be able to use that media arm to influence voters in the run up to an election while another, similar corporation without a media arm should say nothing in the crucial time period when electioneering really matters? Does the media arm somehow make the corporation’s viewpoints neutral?
Citizens United basically levels the playing field and allows all corporations to engage in political speech however they see fit as long as they disclose that they are the source of that political speech.
Of course I must note that part of the Citizens United dissent asserts the ruling will chill democracy, as voters like me will feel as if individual votes are inconsequential next to the mighty influence of that corporate dollar.
But whether or not a corporation can engage in express advocacy 30 days before an election, I know Sarah Jessica Parker can host dinner parties that require guests to pay $40,000 a plate and can guarantee access to a sitting president. While no one is going to argue about Ms. Parker’s “personhood,” it’s clear her money buys her political influence I will never be able to afford. Yet I do not lose faith in the system in her case. Why is the corporate dollar any different?
Which brings me back to The Campaign and its political messaging.
While not expressly supporting a candidate—while only pushing an opinion about a Supreme Court ruling—it occurs to me that the big difference between Hollywood and your run-of-the-mill corporation is that Hollywood makes a profit on the political ads it produces by packaging them as entertainment.
There’s a great deal of irony in knowing that according to a July 17 article in the New York Times, “Of the $96 million or more raised by … super PACs [funded after Citizens United], only about 13 percent came from privately held corporations, and less than 1 percent came from publicly traded corporations.” However, The Campaign with its clear political agenda made $27.4 million in its opening weekend.
Those aren’t bad corporate profits to earn when selling a political viewpoint, eh?
Regardless, it seems clear to me that actors like Will Ferrell who make Moveon.org PSAs, billionaires like the Koch brothers or George Soros, millionaires like Sarah Jessica Parker, Fox News, CNN, Michael Moore, Citizens United, Simon and Schuster, and—yes—other corporations with vested political interests should be able to make their case to the American people for whatever political positions serve them most.
This does not mean money can “buy” elections. Hilariously, money doesn’t even end up buying the election in The Campaign.
However, “we the people” have a clear duty to carefully assess all the information put in front of us—which includes evaluating sources—when participating in our democracy. If we do this, the Citizens United ruling does little more than even the playing field for all who wish to engage in their rights to free speech.
However Hollywood spins it, that’s not a bad thing.