Z e t e o
Reading, Looking, Listening, . . . Questioning

After Five Years of Citizens United

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR


images (2)In his blog post last week for The New York Review of BooksDavid Cole marked the five-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. He noted that a total of eight public interest organizations also took note of the anniversary by publishing reports on the effect the decision has had on US elections: 

Their findings show that the case opened the spigot to well more than a billion dollars in unrestricted outside spending on political campaigns, by corporations and individuals alike. It has done so at a time when wealth and income disparities in the United States are at their highest levels since 1928. Increasingly, it’s not clear that your vote matters unless you’re also willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to support your preferences.

Aside from lamenting the results, Cole also attacks the Court’s rationale in their holding:

The Court has found that contributions to candidates can be restricted because they pose the risk of quid pro quo corruption—when a representative essentially sells his vote to the highest donor. But according to the Court, expenditures made independently, even if they advocate a particular candidate’s election, don’t pose that risk, and therefore can’t be limited. This makes little sense. If I give $500,000 to Harry Reid for his reelection, most of which he will probably spend on television ads, there’s indeed a danger that he may feel indebted to me in a way that undermines democracy. So I can’t do that. The most I can donate is $2,600 per election. But under the Court’s logic, I am free to spend $500,000 on my own television ads advocating Reid’s reelection.

Ultimately, Cole poses the question: what can be done? He insists that not all hope is lost. Supreme Court decisions have been overturned when enough popular outcry makes it clear that they were wrongly decided. Citizens United, Cole (perhaps naively) hopes, will be our next example:

We are likely to see a tenth anniversary of the decision before we see any action in this regard. But if we are to preserve more than a semblance of democracy, it is essential that we convince the Court to recognize the urgent and legitimate need for robust limits on campaign spending.

— Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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