Monday's Supreme Court ruling striking down a Montana campaign finance law that restricted corporate giving in elections represents a victory for free speech. But already the left is warning, in the words of theNation'sJohn Nichols, that "elections [are] for sale."
That was the same line of attack used following the failure to recall Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin. According to liberal commentators, big money bought the election. The little people had their voices drowned out by the uncounted millions of the superrich. For the left, free speech in the form of political contributions is dangerous to our democracy.
There are three critical flaws in this argument, each of which needs to be exposed. The truth is that liberals' obsession with greenbacks is simply a red herring.
Let's start with the obvious: There is no evidence that money buys elections. For every Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who relied on his billions of dollars to finance his three campaigns for New York mayor, there is a Thomas Golisano, who spent $93 million in three attempts to win the governor's mansion in New York and managed just a paltry 14 percent of the vote in his final try.
It's true Mr. Walker outspent his opponent in the Wisconsin recall. But it also is true that Jon Corzine outspent Chris Christie by more than 2-1 in New Jersey's 2009 gubernatorial race, and yet Mr. Christie, to the immense relief of the fiscally sane everywhere, emerged triumphant. Incidentally, this brought Mr. Corzine's total personal spending in each of his three election campaigns to an astounding $130 million.
But facts don't seem to stop the liberals pushing the line that money buys elections. Perhaps this is because it is less about getting to the truth and more about attacking Republicans. This brings us to the second complaint about liberals' anti-big-money meme: the hypocrisy.
President Obama has held more political fundraisers than all presidents combined since Richard Nixon. While Mr. Obama schmoozes the well-heeled in New York and Hollywood, liberal super PACs are raking in millions in the type of high-dollar, anonymous donations for which they attack conservatives. Fundraising is easy work for liberals. Fourteen of the top 20 political donors of all time favor Democrats.
Let's not forget the biggest backers of the Democratic Party, the labor unions. In the 2010 elections, three of the top five outside spenders were unions affiliated with the Democrats, spending a total of $171.5 million. In an age of debt and deficits, it's a safe bet that unions will continue to spend their members' dues to elect politicians who will shield them from essential budget cuts. But the left-wing media is strangely silent about this.
So the liberals' attack on big money is anti-Republican. But it also is anti-republican, which brings us to the greatest flaw in the argument that money can steal elections.
It was republicanism that drove the American Revolution. Its advocates argued that free people possess the innate wisdom and goodness to govern themselves. The American experiment in republican government would thrive, so the Founding Fathers believed, because the American people - virtuous and free - had no need for a mighty king to rule over them. They could do the job better.
The argument against big money is anti-republican. Behind the faux outrage of the liberal commentariat is the belief that the American people are fools, easily duped by whoever has the greatest amount of cash. According to those who want to regulate free speech, all an evil capitalist has to do is dump enough money into a race, and the American people, slavelike, will vote as he commands. This same strain of anti-republicanism is what drives liberals to use taxpayer money to finance healthy-eating campaigns or, as Mr. Bloomberg is doing in New York, banning smoking, trans fats and sugary soft drinks. It's all for the good of the little people, you see; they are too stupid to make those decisions without the guiding hand of big government.
This is why conservatives ought to fight the liberals' accusation that big money buys American elections. Not only is the charge factually false and hypocritical, it insults the intelligence of American voters.
The left is right in one sense: America's democratic processes are under threat. But they are threatened not by a check sent to the governor of Wisconsin, but rather by a liberal ideology that promises to make government so large as to make such elections meaningless.
Dan Whitfield is a British writer living in Washington who has worked with political campaigns in the United States and the United Kingdom.