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Friday, November 14, 2014

The Unheralded Lesson of Mayor Butt's Election for Citizens United

It's always nice, and a fact crucial to the growth of our knowledge, when an event in the real world answers a hotly debated issue.   We got such a fact last week, when Tom Butt was elected Mayor of Richmond, California. He spent about $50,000 on a mostly door-to-door campaign.   In contrast, his opponent was financed to the tune of $3,000,000 by Chevron Oil in a massive media and advertising campaign.    Indeed, Chervon's spending like Goliath in this race had been cited by many progressive pundits as their worst nightmare come true about the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010, which held that corporations could contribute as much as they wanted in national elections, and the subsequent extension of this decision to local elections.

I'm a progressive, too, but I never had a problem with Citizens United, and in fact supported it as an important affirmation of the First Amendment, and its requirement that "Congress make no law ... abridging freedom of speech or press".   Opponents of Citizens United argue that the First Amendment protects the rights of people not corporations to communicate, and this set off a distracting discussion about whether corporations are people.   But that question misses the reality that communication is intrinsically a two-way street, with a receiver as well as a sender, and the First Amendment protects both parts of that equation from governmental interference or regulation.  What this means in plain English is that Americans have a right to receive information from anyone and everything - be it another person, a corporation, a bird chirping, a robot, or a tree falling in the forest. All of this comes under the public's right to know.

But what about the feared deleterious effect of big corporate spending on our elections, and therefore our democratic process?   I was never too concerned about that, either, because, like John Milton and Thomas Jefferson, I believe that human beings are fundamentally rational, able to separate truth from falsity, and make decisions that best serve their interests, most of the time.   And, indeed, I was glad that Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012 for at least two reasons.   First, as I said, I'm a progressive, and support most of his policies.   But, second, Obama's reelection showed that all the post-Citizens United spending on behalf of Republican candidates, including Romney, failed in its mission to unseat the President.

Still, one could argue that Obama is an anomaly, so charismatic a candidate that it didn't matter how much money his corporate-funded opponent - and already fabulously wealthy on his own - spent against Obama.   That's what makes the election of Mayor Butt so important. Impossibly overspent by Chevron Oil, Butt managed to win.    You could say Chrevon lost, with no ands, ifs, but a least one Butt about it.  (Ok, I had to be permitted at least one pun here.)

Progressives should be celebrating.  But I've seen little of that - at least, not for the right reasons. Rachel Maddow aptly cited Butt's election as a bright spot in the otherwise mostly grim election night last week.   But she failed to follow through on the logical import of Butt's election:  corporate spending need not buy elections.   Progressives can win, if we put up good candidates, who take courageous and clearly defined positions, and speak sense to the people.   Butt's election showed a packet of lies financed by millions of dollars loses to a statement of truth financed by just a sliver of that money.   In politics, money doesn't talk as loud as some thought.

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