Last spring, a whopping 91 percent of Monona voters favored amending the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
I was not one of the 91 percent, as regular readers of this column probably assumed.
The Citizens United decision said that when it comes to making campaign contributions, corporations have the same freedom-of-speech rights as individual citizens.
It outraged a lot of people, particularly those who are overly concerned about money in politics (read “Freakonomics”) and spawned the “Move to Amend” movement across the nation.
I opposed last spring’s referendum vote, but not because I want corporations buying politicians.
I am just very reluctant to tinker with the Constitution, a document that has held up pretty well for the past two centuries. While amendments guaranteed both blacks and women the right to vote, never forget that tinkering also brought us both Prohibition and the income tax.
Also, the so-called “Move to Amend” movement aims at my favorite part of the Constitution: The First Amendment, which guarantees both individual citizens and “the press” (corporations, if you will) freedom from government censorship.
I have good company: The nation’s pre-eminent First Amendment scholar, Floyd Abrams, is on my side.
Younger readers may not remember Abrams as well as we old folks, but his resume includes defending – successfully — the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case.
The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University said of Abrams: “Ask someone to name a First Amendment lawyer. If they answer, 100 percent of the time the answer will be the same: Floyd Abrams. Then ask them to name another such lawyer. The answer: silence … Floyd Abrams is synonymous with the First Amendment in a way that virtually no other name is.”
Abrams, 81, is currently promoting his third book, “The Soul of the First Amendment,” published by Yale University Press.
He views the “Move to Amend” movement as a solution to a problem that does not exist.
“Many of ‘Citizens United’s’ harshest critics imagined a nation controlled by multibillion-dollar corporations that would dictate business-friendly legislation to paid-for lawmakers,” he wrote in an opinion column for the Wall Street Journal.
“Since those predictions, two presidential and four congressional elections have come and gone. There’s now solid data, filed with the Federal Election Commission, showing how much money corporations have spent in recent elections. It turns out the apocalyptic forecasts were not just inaccurate but utterly insupportable.
“It is true that in the wake of ‘Citizens United’ many groups sprang up that are permitted to spend unlimited sums supporting or opposing candidates and issues … so-called super PACs.
“Super PACs across the political spectrum raised $1.8 billion between Jan. 1, 2015, and Dec. 31, 2016, according to data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics. Of that, $1.04 billion came from individual donors and $242 million from unions, trade associations, politically active nonprofits and other organizations.
“Only $85 million was contributed by business corporations.”
I found the accompanying chart quite interesting: It listed the top 20 donors to Super PACs during the last election cycle.
Numero Uno was Democratic hedge fund gazillionaire Tom Steyer at $89.5 million. Number two was Republican donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson at $78 million.
Three and four were big Hillary donors Donald Sussman, $39 million, and Fred Eychaner, $35 million. They were followed by the liberal groups NextGen Climate Action, $33 million, and Priorities USA Action, $26 million.
In fact, 15 of the 20 biggest donors gave to Democratic candidates and groups.
The top Republican donors were No. 8, Paul Singer, $24 million; No. 12, Robert Mercer, $23 million; a group called One Nation that came in at No. 14, $22 million; No. 16, the Republican Governors Association, $21 million, and No. 20, former Wisconsinite Richard Uihlein, $19 million.
(The liberals’ arch-villain Koch brothers did not make the top 50. The Conservatives’ main nemesis George Soros was a measly 19th.)
As Abrams noted: “Among the Top 40 contributors to super PACs during the 2016 election cycle were eight unions and only one corporation.
“The data suggest two conclusions. The first was summarized by Brooklyn Law School Professor Joel Gora after the 2012 election: ‘The predicted wave of corporate financial political intervention never materialized.’
“That remained true in 2016 and probably will into the foreseeable future.
“The second is that … Fear of public disapproval limits (corporations’) appetite for potential controversy, so they do their best to steer clear of high-profile political entanglements … The unwillingness of large corporations to offend their actual or desired customers is difficult to overstate.”
Abrams concluded: “Despite the bombastic rhetoric and dire predictions, corporations and their vast treasuries have not dominated elections post-‘Citizens United.’ … It would be nice if those who expected a darker world would acknowledge that fact.”
Yes, well, I don’t expect to hear from the Monona: United to Amend gang any time soon.
But if I have to be a rare wolf howling at the sky-is-falling crowd, I can’t think of better company than Abrams.
Got something Sunny Schubert should know? Call her at 222-1604 or e-mail email@example.com.