How Our Democracy Got Sold: Citizens United and the Effect of Big Money on Campaign Spending

October 13, 2015

Ben & Jerry's - Democracy Sold

Coming soon to a movie theatre near you: The next major election cycle. Now that’s a film you might not want to see. But when election cycle spending is expected to top $5 billion, why not just bill it as a Hollywood blockbuster?

A recent Demos report shows that the winning 2014 Senate candidates had to raise $3,300, on average, every day for six years. And when getting a seat in the Senate comes with a price tag of over $7 million, candidates are pressured to focus on the interests of donors with deeper pockets.

How did we get to this point, where the price of politics has soared so high, and the voice of the average voter can be drowned out by the influence of big money? Here’s the breakdown on how our democracy got sold:

The Citizens United Effect: Political Spending as a First Amendment Right

Before the January 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case, laws prevented corporations and unions from buying media that promoted (or criticized) any candidate in the run up to elections. After the Citizens United ruling, that ban was tossed aside, allowing corporations and unions unlimited spending on ads an other political tools used to influence election outcomes.

But the biggest thing to come out of Citizens United was the court’s decision that political spending amounted to a First Amendment right. Using that precedent, a separate 2010 v. FEC case ruled that spending limits on contributions to campaign advocacy groups was unconstitutional— unleashing Super PACS powered by unlimited donations, provided they don’t directly coordinate with candidates.

The effect was immediate. The 2012 election cycle saw over 1 billion in outside spending, three times more than in 2008. And 68% of that came from just 216 donors— with one person alone donating $92.7 million. Now just consider how that person’s opinions and concerns are being weighed against yours. Getting steamed at all?

The Cost of Campaigning Needs to be Reigned In

There’s no question that running for office is more expensive now than it ever was before. Gaining a seat in Congress is 500% more costly than in 1984, while President Obama’s 2008 campaign was twice as expensive George W. Bush’s campaign in 2004 (and 260 times more than Abraham Lincoln’s first election, measured in 2011 dollars). Sure there’s inflation, but at this rate campaign spending has even outpaced that time-honored increase in costs.

Framing campaign spending as a First Amendment right has tilted the scales of political influence steeply in favor of wealthy individuals, corporations and organizations. It’s a crazy problem, but its also one that has people across across all party lines fired up about The Democracy For All Amendment, which would overturn the Citizens United decision, and empower Congress and the States once again to limit overall campaign spending.

Sixteen states as diverse as West Virginia and Hawaii have passed resolutions supporting the Democracy for All Amendment, while 22 others have pending resolutions. More than 550 cities and towns, plus over 160 former and current members of Congress have voiced their support, too. To add your voice to the chorus calling for a change back to a more sane version of campaign spending, click over to Free Speech for the People to sign a petition supporting the amendment, and get involved as an organizer in your own state.