With its members holding lifetime tenure and sheltered from elections and polls, the Supreme Court has the capacity to structure the politics of the other two branches. It did so in 2000, when it settled the electoral standoff between Al Gore Jr. and George W. Bush. It did so in 2010, when it permitted corporations and nonprofit organizations to make unlimited “independent expenditures.” And it did so again this week.
This latest decision, which threw out a $123,200 limit on contributions to federal candidates and political parties over a two-year election cycle, threw American politics into upheaval and altered the landscape for this fall’s elections.
The high court’s decision buttressed two important trends. It chipped away at campaign-finance laws that since the mid-1970s had sought to restrict the influence of big money on American political campaigns. And it affirmed the notion that political contributions are a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.
Both of these developments have shaped American politics in recent years, and though they were embraced with new vigor by special-interest groups and deplored with new outrage by activists seeking to limit the effect of money on politics, they in effect return American politics to pre-Watergate, or even pre-20th century, contours.
More specifically, the ruling may help the established political parties, traditionally the source of the money that the California politician Jesse M. Unruh described as the mother’s milk of politics. In recent years the two major parties had watched helplessly as streams of political money flowed to outside groups. But the partial reversal of this trend almost certainly will return American politics to a shape more familiar to readers of textbooks than to readers of contemporary newspapers and websites.
That world is a politics of a nearly unfettered flow of money into the major parties, accompanied by a nearly unfettered influence on politics of the lobbyists who are both instruments of big money and distributors of big money.
In pre-20th century terms, this means the likely re-emergence of party-aligned power brokers like Mark Hannah, who bankrolled Republican President William McKinley (in office 1897-1901) and also served himself in the Senate (1897-1904). In more modern terms, it also means the sustained and perhaps enhanced power of organized labor over Democratic politicians and of large business groups like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers over Republican politicians.
This decision prompted the predictable hails and horrors from the predictable corners of American civic and political life. But its effects — like the campaign finance laws themselves, which reshaped American politics in unanticipated, often mischievous ways — are impossible to predict.
That said, some changes are almost inevitable. “A relatively small group of donors capable of giving large sums now will be able to give even more,” says Anthony J. Corrado Jr., a Colby College political scientist specializing in campaign-finance issues. No one disputes that.
There likely will be a new Niagara of money flowing into this year’s 36 gubernatorial races, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the states, including the four big ones (California, Texas, New York and Florida) and several other politically important ones (Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland and Wisconsin).
Money will flood into the 435 House races, too, where Republicans almost certainly will retain and very likely enhance their majority, as well as the 33 Senate races that now loom so important for the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency and for the rest of this decade.
One of the campaign-finance caps that remains — the ban on giving more than $5,200 to a single candidate during the two-year election cycle — is almost meaningless on a national scale. Now big donors can direct their contributions to all candidates coast to coast or contribute to the national parties, permitting the parties in turn to distribute the money where it would be most effective. That latter tactic could trump the influence of an individual donor on an individual campaign, as it would permit party strategists in Washington to concentrate money where its impact can be greatest.
This is not to say that big money and big power don’t rule the capital already. Many analysts believe their influence is greater than ever, reinforced not only by the Citizens United decision four years ago but also by the astonishing growth of wealth at the upper income levels of American life and by the new fundraising tools created by the Internet. Even apostles of the so-called little guy in American politics have been beneficiaries of big money — and here Mr. Obama immediately comes to mind, though much of his campaign treasury was gathered in small contributions by ingenious initiatives on the Web.
This is one reason the established parties don’t rule Washington the way they once did: ruthlessly, remorselessly, relentlessly.
Though the major parties have been recast in the last quarter-century by money, though both have become more ideologically aligned and though both have become more ideologically rigid, both have in some senses become less powerful. While their ability to stymie their rivals seems unlimited and their inclination to slime their opponents seems inexhaustible — the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the demonization of George W. Bush, the relentless attacks on Mr. Obama — they have been eclipsed by independent groups.
With more money and thus more power available to the parties, it is possible that groups such as the Tea Party could find their influence undermined by the very party establishments that their money and candidates are trying to change.
Groups like the Tea Party will still have funding, to be sure; many of their donors are more interested in their causes than in promoting the GOP. With enhanced power residing in groups like the National Republican Campaign Committee, however, leaders of the party establishment may be able to drown with money those candidates they regard as rogues — particularly when incumbents are involved.
Nobody can accurately predict how this Supreme Court decision will reconfigure American politics, just as no one thought the post-Watergate laws would create political-action committees that would come to dominate the politics that followed. That is why careful commentators never refer to campaign-finance “reform” — and why commentaries like this one are dangerous.
Supreme Court decisions are sometimes like rafts on a river. You think they are drifting in one direction — and then ripples and rapids change their course entirely.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).