The Appearance Of Corruption

To Protect Clinton, Democrats Wage War on Their Own Core Citizens United Argument
by Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept
Apr. 14 2016, 10:36 a.m.

(The) key argument of the right-wing justices in Citizens United has now become the key argument of the Clinton campaign and its media supporters to justify her personal and political receipt of millions upon millions of dollars in corporate money: “expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption” – at least when the candidate in question is Hillary Clinton.

Indeed, the Clinton argument actually goes well beyond the Court’s conservatives: in Citizens United, the right-wing justices merely denied the corrupting effect of independent expenditures (i.e., ones not coordinated with the campaign). But Clinton supporters in 2016 are denying the corrupting effect of direct campaign donations by large banks and corporations and, even worse, huge speaking fees paid to an individual politician shortly before and after that person holds massive political power.

Another critical aspect of the right-wing majority argument in Citizens United was that actual corruption requires proof of a “quid-pro-quo” arrangement: meaning that the politician is paid to vote a certain way (which is, basically, bribery). Prior precedent, said the Citizens United majority, “was limited to quid pro quo corruption,” quoting a prior case as holding that “the hallmark of corruption is the financial quid pro quo: dollars for political favors.”

Does that sound familiar? It should. That, too, has become a core Clinton-supporting argument: look, if you can’t prove that Hillary changed her vote in exchange for Goldman Sachs speaking fees or JPMorgan Chase donations (and just by the way, Elizabeth Warren believes she can prove that), then you can’t prove that these donations are corrupting. After all, argue Clinton supporters (echoing the Citizens United majority): “the hallmark of corruption is the financial quid pro quo: dollars for political favors.”

Conversely, the once-beloved Citizens United dissent from the Court’s liberals, written by Justice Stevens, was emphatic in its key claim: that there are many other forms of corruption brought about by corporate campaign expenditures beyond such quid-pro-quo – i.e., bribery – transactions. Their argument was that large amounts of corporate cash are almost inevitably corrupting, and certainly undermines trust in the political system, because of the many different ways (well beyond overt quid-pro-quos) that corporations use to convert their expenditures to undue influence and access.

That core argument from the liberal Citizens United dissenters has been the central critique of the Sanders campaign and its supporters, used to denounce Clinton’s massive corporate-based campaign (and personal) wealth. Incredibly, to defend their candidate against this critique, Clinton supporters have waged war on the crux of the liberal critique of Citizens United.

Oh no, Clinton supporters insist, the mere fact that a candidate is receiving millions upon millions of dollars – both politically and personally – from Wall Street banks, hedge funds, and large corporations is not remotely suggestive of corruption, and we’re actually offended at the suggestion that it is. They are explicitly channeling Antonin Scalia and Mitch McConnell in defending the integrity of politicians who accept massive corporate money. As campaign finance reformer Zephyr Teachout wrote about a 1999 Supreme Court opinion authored by Scalia that “set the table for Citizens United“: “the Court suggests that using money to influence power through gifts is both inevitable and not troubling” – i.e., the 2016 argument of Clinton supporters.

What’s most amazing about all of this is that Clinton defenders are going even further in defending the integrity of corporate cash expenditures than many defenders of Citizens United did. There were many reluctant defenders of that decision on free speech grounds – such as the ACLU, Eliot Spitzer, various unions, and myself – who argued that the solution to domination of corporate donations was not to vest the government with the power to restrict political speech (the case began when an advocacy group was barred from distributing an anti-Hillary film) but, instead, to institute a system of robust public financing to even the playing field, to disempower corporations by rendering their expenditures unnecessary. But those of us who defended the decision on free speech grounds nonetheless accepted, and indeed vehemently argued, that corporate expenditures are corrupting in the extreme. As I wrote after that decision: “corporate influence over our political process is easily one of the top sicknesses afflicting our political culture.”

Incredibly, Clinton supporters, to defend their candidate, have resorted to denying what was once a core orthodoxy of Democratic politics: that big corporate donations (let alone being personally enriched by huge Wall Street speaking fees in between stints in public office) are corrupting. In doing so, these Democrats – just as they did when they instantly transformed from opponents to supporters of Guantanamo, drones and spying once Obama stopped denouncing those things and started doing them – have spent the 2016 campaign vehemently renouncing the crux of the argument in favor of campaign finance reform.

(True or False: Big corporate/bank campaign donations are corrupting?)

If you’re a Clinton supporter, how do you answer that question? What had been the only possible answer – of course it’s not ideal that Clinton relies on huge amounts of corporate cash, but she has no choice if she wants to raise the amounts needed to be competitive – has been decisively disproven by the Sanders campaign. And, either way, none of that justifies jettisoning what has, for many years, been at the heart of the liberal critique of the political system: that massive corporate donations corrupt. But as establishment Democrats have repeatedly proven, there is literally no principle, no belief, immune from being dispensed with the minute they think doing so helps empower their leaders.

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