Why the left needs to abandon its zombie argument on toppling Citizens United | Bruce Ledewitz

March 11, 2020 6:30 am

To defeat polarization in American politics, it is not necessary to practice false equivalence.

Bruce Ledewitz (Capital-Star file)

We don’t have to pretend that “our side” is just as bad as “their side,” when we don’t believe that is true.

However, we are obligated to evaluate everyone by the same standard.

That is why the recent work by New York Time’s columnist and 2008 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Paul Krugman, is so disappointing. He has basically been aiming his considerable powers of analysis only at Republicans and conservatives.

For years, Krugman has been complaining about “zombie” ideas—ideas that circulate in politics and in the media, despite having been repeatedly discredited by the evidence. These ideas refuse to die, with baleful policy consequences.

In his recent book, Arguing with Zombies, Krugman recycles his complaints about a number of these zombie ideas, especially fears about the national debt, the claim that tax cuts pay for themselves and the denial of climate change. The latter two he calls, “The Ultimate Zombie” and “The Most Important Thing.”

Aside from criticism of the Euro, Krugman admits he is aiming at “bad things done by basically bad people”—meaning Krugman’s political opponents.

Are there no zombie ideas on the left?

Of course there are. Some of these ideas are held by a relatively small group of people who are mainly, but not exclusively, progressives—like the idea that vaccines can cause autism.

Other positions are widely held despite a lack of evidence supporting them. Many progressives favor banning or issuing food warnings on genetically modified food, when there is no scientific evidence of their harm. And almost everyone on the Left favors limited gun control measures that probably would not have prevented any of episodes of gun violence we have suffered in recent years.

To be effective, you would need a New Zealand-style confiscation program, which no Democratic Party politician would dare admit.

But the biggest liberal zombie idea is that the Citizens United decision must be overturned to take the influence of big money out of politics. The Democrats’ 2016 platform pledged to “overturn the disastrous Citizens United decision” in order to end “corporations’ outsized influence in elections.”

Actually, the basic structure of campaign spending was set in Buckley v. Valeo in 1976. That decision overturned campaign finance limits on independent spending by wealthy individuals, which led to the creation of PACs that could pool money from such people and spend unlimited amounts on campaign activities, like attack ads. It was just such a group that “swift-boated” John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.

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The vast majority of money in American politics is spent by individuals. When critics of the influence of wealth in politics point to examples of excess, they almost always point to the activities of wealthy individuals, such as the Koch Brothers or Sheldon Adelson, and not to corporate spending.

Furthermore, prior to the decision in Citizens United, the Supreme Court had already expanded the definition of “issue ads” that corporations could finance during election campaigns as long as the ads targeted an issue rather than just calling for the election or defeat of a particular candidate.

So, if the documentary in the Citizens United case had criticized Hillary Clinton as dishonest and untrustworthy, but had not called for her defeat, it could have been financed by business corporations, without any change in the law.

It is not surprising that large scale, widely held corporations generally refrain from getting too involved in election campaigns. Some of their customers would not like it.

Of course, sometimes it is hard to find out just who is doing the spending. But, Citizens United upheld disclosure requirements for corporations, so the problem of corporate “dark money” in politics could be ended tomorrow by a simple statute.

The emphasis on overturning Citizens United coincides with a more general zombie idea on the Left—that big money controls who gets nominated and who gets elected in America.

The political events of recent years should have ended this narrative, but like all zombie ideas, it remains stubbornly alive despite all evidence to the contrary.

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Former President Barack Obama was a phenomenal fundraiser. In 2008, two years before the Citizens United decision, Obama was the first major party candidate for president to reject public general election matching funds, arguing that he had to counter the independent spending by the rich that tended to aid Republican candidates.

Eight years later, only one Presidential candidate accepted public financing even in the primaries.

In 2016, big money did not favor then-candidate Donald Trump, who was consistently outspent by his opponents, both in the primaries and in the general election.

This year, big money has been even more obviously ineffective. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., may have problems getting votes, but he has no trouble raising money. Conversely, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg poured more than $400 million of primarily his own money into his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, with negligible results.

Like all zombie ideas, there is a reason why the power of money is constantly invoked.

This claim justifies the failure of the left to elect genuinely progressive candidates and enact genuinely progressive policies. Acknowledging that voters generally support the candidates and policies they prefer would require serious soul searching on the left. Better, and more comforting, to blame big money and keep these zombie ideas alive, instead.

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.  Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here.

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Bruce Ledewitz
Bruce Ledewitz

Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne Kline Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He hosts the “Bends Toward Justice” podcast. His latest book, “The Universe Is On Our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life,” is out now. His opinions do not represent the position of Kline Duquesne Law School.