Amid a nationwide torrent of dire predictions about what more corporate money in politics might mean, few predicted that Minnesota would become a key testing ground for what the U.S. Supreme Court wrought when it ruled in January that the independent political speech of corporations and unions can't be banned.
But Minnesota has in fact found itself in the center of the storm. And the state's experience, at least so far, should ease fears that democracy is in desperate peril.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank wisely refused to block enforcement of disclosure laws the Minnesota Legislature put in place earlier this year. Lawmakers here were among the first in the nation to act in response to the Supreme Court's landmark decision in the Citizens United case, which struck down bans on direct corporate politicking in federal law and in about half the states, Minnesota included.
Over the summer, the impact of those new disclosure rules were driven home for several prominent Minnesota firms, especially Target Corp., when protests erupted over contributions the companies made to a fund pushing the gubernatorial candidacy of Republican Tom Emmer, largely because of his opposition to same-sex marriage. Target's traumatic initiation to the rough-and-tumble of politics has left many speculating that businesses concerned about their broader image with customers and investors might conclude that free speech, after all, has potentially unaffordable costs.
Our guess is that many corporations will stay involved, but with increasing sensitivity to the ways political spending might affect their brand identities. They may grow cautious about supporting candidacies or messages that clash with a carefully honed corporate image, as happened in Target's case, and may recognize that claiming to support only some of a candidate's policy positions strains credibility. In general, they may be drawn to back relatively moderate, nonpolarizing candidates whose views are congenial to their business interests.
In short, it may turn out that a kind of all-American check and balance limits corporate political ambitions, as observers from states that have long allowed corporate politicking have often reported. Corporations are often faulted for a narrow focus on short-term profits. But that very narrow-mindedness means that businesses have to be practical and can't afford to be radically committed to fighting for an abstract ideological vision -- not if doing so drives customers away from their stores or products.
All this strikes us as healthy. As we said shortly after the Citizens United ruling, we don't fully share the alarm of the decision's most impassioned detractors because we are believers in the truth-revealing power of free speech. That very much includes the speech that will be directed back at corporations and unions that choose to enter the political fray.
But disclosure, as we also said last winter, is the key to keeping that two-way conversation going. There is no respectable argument for secrecy among large, influential institutions. Judge Frank's preliminary reasoning, in a case filed before the Target controversy, is persuasive that Citizens United leaves states wide latitude to "assist the electorate to make informed decisions in the political marketplace."
Indeed, Minnesota lawmakers should take encouragement from Frank's opinion and lead the way toward still wider disclosure, especially by requiring immediate electronic reporting of political contributions and spending.
In this information age, there is no good reason to delay a full accounting of just who is doing the speaking.