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Lifting limits: McCutcheon and raw politics

April 06. 2014 5:18PM

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court in McCutcheon v. FEC struck down aggregate campaign contribution limits as unconstitutional, and on cue the left went bananas. Despite the hysteria, this is not the end of American civilization. Nor does it represent the demise of representative democracy or any similar overblown nonsense. What it does is threaten incumbents.

As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in McCutcheon, “The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute. Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. ... It may not, however, regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”

The last line is the key. Campaign contribution limits do not protect “democracy.” They empower the state to restrict the political participation of citizens. Such restrictions have the effect of solidifying rather than weakening the advantages of incumbency and the powers of the media.

The idea that Super PACs and wealthy donors threaten democracy with their political spending is a myth. The Los Angeles Times reported after the 2012 election that Republican-affiliated Super PACs spent hundreds of millions of dollars, but Democrats still won. “In fact, groups allied with President Obama claimed more success, even though they were outspent,” the Times reported.

The lesson of 2012 is that message and organization trump money. The urge to restrict money (read, speech) in politics is an impulse driven either by irrational fear or base self interest. It is not a noble or disinterested cause. It is raw, hardball politics masquerading as a noble cause.

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