January 19, 2016
Ideally, birthdays and anniversaries are a time to celebrate. We pause and commemorate milestones with friends and loved ones over a pint or three of our favorite ice cream. We smile. We eat some cake. Well, not this time. January 21, 2018, will mark eight years since the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision—you know, the one that gave rise to super PACs and secret unlimited and unregulated political donations that undermine our democracy. And no one, save perhaps for the crazy-wealthy donors the decision favored, and the politicians who love them, will be breaking out the confetti.
The Birth of the Super PAC
Citizens United is not the first Supreme Court ruling to tackle the role of money in politics. Back in 1976, Buckley v. Valeo set the stage for the current debate, when the Supreme Court declared for the first time that spending money on candidates or campaigns is a form of protected free speech. Citizens United doubled down on that disputed concept and then, for good measure, did away with many of the remaining restrictions on spending. Thanks to Citizens United, corporations and individuals can now blow as much money as they want on campaigns, provided that the cash is not given directly to candidates. And that, friends, is how super PACs (political action committees: essentially giant multi-tentacled, money-gobbling operations) were born and came to dominate our political landscape.
Super PACs, following the letter of the Supremes’ new law, are not allowed to coordinate their efforts with the candidates they support. But what’s funny, or horribly damaging and tragic, depending on your point of view, is that many super PACs are run by members of the candidates’ inner circles. This billion-dollar game of nudge-nudge, wink-wink may be fun to play in certain corners of Washington, D.C., but for the rest of us, it basically obliterates the only remaining wall separating donors and candidates. Nobody wants to say the C-word (corruption!), but it’s hard to think of a better way to describe the results of such a rigged system.
Your $$ Is Your Voice
Thanks to Citizens United, unregulated outside cash is pouring into super PACs and campaigns in ever-increasing quantities—from hundreds of millions a few years ago, to billions of dollars today. And much of that money can’t be traced, so there’s no way to know where it’s coming from or what kind of bang for their buck the donors received. This trend has affected elections at all levels, from local races to the highest office in the land. There doesn’t appear to be any end in sight to the ramped-up spending.
In 2010, five out of the nine justices on the Supreme Court apparently felt totally fine saying, with a straight face, that giving $1,000 or $1 million to a candidate is exactly the same as giving $1 or $10. Even more comically, they dismissed the idea that candidates would be inclined to treat high-rolling donors any differently from their other, less-obscenely-wealthy constituents. Common sense tells us that this is crazy, and some recent research confirms how right we are. Not only are politicians swayed by big dollar signs, all that cash also has an impact on the legislative process. In other words, the interests of the richest Americans are being heard loud and clear, and legislation that’s friendly to their agenda is getting proposed and passed. As for the rest of us? Not so much.
The Top 0.01%
Remember the 2016 election campaign? Feels like forever ago now, but let us jog your memory: it was endless, brutal, and... really, really expensive. $6.5 billion expensive. Overall, in the 2016 cycle, fewer donors were responsible for a larger share of the spending. Who were these megadonors? The top 0.01%. Yes, that’s zero-point-zero-one percent.
With more and more candidates—at all levels of government—beholden to such benefactors to sustain their efforts, we can be sure that the voices of ordinary citizens will be drowned out. Most of us can’t buy a candidate or arrange for some fancy backroom sit-down to discuss our priorities. But even so, it would be nice to be heard.
Overturn Citizens United!
Democracy withers when only a tiny percentage of the overall population determines the agenda and sets the rules. Citizenship is cheapened when we’re told that throwing around bundles of cash is simply an exercise in free speech. For eight years now we’ve been living in the world Citizens United created, a world where fewer and fewer people have a say, where big money trumps fairness and participation, where the interests and priorities of common people (a.k.a. the majority) are often ignored.
But here’s some good news. Nineteen states and more than 700 municipalities have called for a Constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United. Also, polls show that 48% of Americans oppose Citizens United, while 57% support placing limits on the cash that super PACs can raise and spend. You can help keep the pressure on. Sign this petition today calling for the overturning of Citizens United. Imagine seeing an amendment passed that would end the corruption and restore our democracy! Now THAT would be a day to celebrate.