Ron Fein is legal director for Free Speech for People.
Barry Goldwater’s favorite response to an idea that earned his disdain was “Hell, no.” And that’s exactly how the late senator from Arizona would likely have responded to Post columnist George F. Will after he attacked a common-sense constitutional amendment that would authorize limits on the influence of money in politics.
Last month, Will quoted Goldwater in the opening lines of a column arguing that the Citizens United decision protects Americans’ First Amendment rights. According to Will, Citizens United says that “Americans do not forfeit their speech rights when they band together to express themselves on political issues through corporations, which they generally do through nonprofit advocacy corporations,” like the Sierra Club or NARAL Pro-Choice. However, the Supreme Court had already held in its 1986 Massachusetts Citizens for Life decision that true nonprofit advocacy corporations, as defined by certain reasonable parameters, can spend money in elections — and it distinguished them from business corporations for that reason.
Citizens United, by contrast, opened the floodgates to political spending by business corporations — the kind that Goldwater didn’t want interfering in our democracy. As he explained in his 1960 bestseller “The Conscience of a Conservative,” political fundraising should come from “individuals and individuals alone.” He put it simply: “I see no reason for labor unions — or corporations — to participate in politics.” The post-Citizens United flood of corporate and union dollars into our politics would have infuriated the senator.
Fifty years ago, Goldwater made a historic run for president. He didn’t win, but his campaign launched the modern conservative movement. Goldwater’s experience taught him the dangerous influence of money in politics. As he explained, “the role of money is way out of line. It’s strangling us. The influence of money distorts everything. Government of and by the people, for example, is waning.” He advocated limits on overall spending in election campaigns — both by the candidates themselves and by “independent” spenders — and suggested trying to persuade the Supreme Court to reverse its 1976 decision holding that campaign spending limits violate the First Amendment.
Today, Will trumpets that “all limits will be set by incumbent legislators . . . [to] serve incumbents’ interests.” As an Arizonan, Goldwater knew the power of direct democracy — the ballot propositions and initiatives that voters can vote up or down, without any “incumbent legislators” in the way. But in Montana, some who apparently agree with Will are suing the state to overturn campaign finance laws that were passed by the voters.
The stakes could hardly be higher. As Goldwater prophesied, “our nation is facing a crisis of liberty if we do not control campaign expenditures. Unlimited campaign spending eats at the heart of the democratic process.” It’s time for us to look this problem in the eye and say, in the immortal words of the late senator from Arizona, “Hell, no!”