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 it.