Happy Birthday Citizens United; May It Be Your Last

By Joe Ready
Director, Democracy for the People Campaign

This month, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision turns eight. With all that’s going on in politics, it’s easy to focus on the latest scandal or hot take. But we should take the opportunity on this anniversary to focus on what I would argue is at the root of our political quagmire.

Citizens United is the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned decades of common-sense campaign finance guidelines. In effect, Citizens United determined that money is speech (which in turn should not be restricted) and corporations are people (thus entitled to free speech). Both of these concepts are fundamentally at odds with both a democratic system of government and basic common sense. And, in each election since then, we’ve seen the results. Year after year, candidates, super PACs (political action committees) and outside special interest groups have broken fundraising and spending records.

But the problem isn’t really the amount of money — it’s where it comes from. Under the current system, the most efficient use of a candidate’s time is raising the maximum allowable contribution from the small set of donors who can give at that level. This means that candidates spend the most time with the people (or corporations) who can afford to give the most, ignoring the voices and concerns of ordinary people.

Not surprisingly, a focus on mega-donors translates to policy. Let’s look at the recent tax bill. The most basic responsibility of elected officials is to represent (hence the term representative) their constituents’ interests within the governing body. It would stand to reason then that the legislation passed by the governing body would broadly reflect the desires of one set or another of constituents. But in the tax bill, we have legislation that only 30% of Americans believe will help them. This shouldn’t happen in a well-functioning democracy.

Unfortunately, heading into 2018’s midterm elections, we need to brace ourselves for more of the same: more fundraising and spending records broken, more big money flooding in from mega-donors and Super PACs, and yet more attack ads financed by mysterious “dark money” groups that don’t reveal the interests behind their spending.

Big-money politics has damaged our democracy. Too many people feel that our elected officials only represent wealthy people and groups. But the beauty of a democracy is that it can change if the public demands it.

Real opportunities for campaign finance reform exist, and bipartisan support for reform is growing. Across the country, Americans are standing up for and winning reforms. In state after state, voters and legislators have passed legislation supporting an amendment to the Constitution that would overturn Citizens United and allow for reasonable limits on big-money politics. Sixteen states and nearly 700 communities nationwide have called for that type of amendment.

Like dissatisfaction with special interests, support for an amendment isn’t limited to any one political party. A recent poll shows that a full 73 percent of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents combined support overturning Citizens United. The New York Times shows that 85% of Americans believe our country’s campaign finance system needs fundamental changes or must be completely rebuilt.

We can do it. On the eighth anniversary of Citizens United, opportunities for real reform exist at every level of a democratic government.

Our democracy isn’t dead, no more than corporations are people or money is speech. But we need to fight to make it better. After all, that’s what democracy is about.

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