One of the historical oddities about today’s debates over corporate money and elections is that the issue maps so directly onto partisan political differences, at least among national political players. As I’ve noted before, the deeper, long-term pattern historically has been quite different. Starting at least in the Jacksonian era, with Andrew Jackson’s war on the Bank of the United States — in significant part, because of allegations that the Bank was playing a role in partisan political contests — there have been longstanding alliances against corporate money in politics that united more conservative populists in the west and midwest with more liberal progressives in the east and that transcended conventional partisan divisions.
Arizona’s John McCain, of course, was a principal architect of the restrictions on corporate electioneering the Supreme Court struck down in Citizens United. And within the US Supreme Court, manifestations of that deep historical pattern can be seen in the fact that several Justices from the western United States who otherwise were considered conservatives or moderates strongly endorsed the power of government to limit the role of corporate money in elections — Justice O’Connor (from Arizona), Justice White (from Colorado), and Justice Rehnquist (sixteen years in private practice in Arizona). But there is no one on the Court now who appears to reflect that western-style populist resistance to corporate electioneering.
It’s against this backdrop that the recent decision of the Montana Supreme Court, which upheld that state’s ban on corporate electioneering despite Citizens United, ought to be seen. What’s particularly striking about the 5-2 decision is that even the dissenting judges, who believed Citizens United required them to hold Montana’s law unconstitutional, nonetheless railed against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision. Take a look at a couple of these passages from dissenting Justice James Nelson:
I am deeply frustrated, as are many Americans, with the reach of Citizens United. The First Amendment has now been elevated to a vaunted and isolated position so as to endow corporations with extravagant rights of political speech and, with those rights, the
exaggerated power to influence voters and elections. . . .