In the 10 years since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Citizens United v. FEC, history has proven the ruling’s chief critics completely wrong about its impact on American democracy.
The ruling did not usher in an era of unrestrained corporate campaign spending that drowned out the voices of ordinary Americans. Instead, by opening up alternative funding sources, Citizens United and its progeny have helped our democracy to flourish by taking power from the establishment political elites and their news media cronies, and made it possible for outsider candidates, such as Donald Trump, to effectively compete for votes in the American political arena.
Before the ink even had a chance to dry, The New York Times, itself a corporation, fired off an editorial decrying the decision, saying it “thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century.” President Barack Obama in his 2010 State of the Union address a few days later claimed the court’s ruling “will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in or elections.”
As our new film on Citizens United discusses, in the decade that has followed, none of this has come to pass. Yes, corporations may lawfully play a role in American elections, but their financial impact has been quite small compared to other funding sources.
A Report by the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board summed it up as follows: No major corporation has spent money independently in support of a candidate. Only two companies in 2014 and 10 in 2016 made independent expenditures from corporate funds, and these companies spent relatively miniscule amounts.
Even when it comes to the funding of so-called Super PACs, groups that can accept unlimited contributions from corporations as well as individuals, corporate funding amounted to just 5 percent of those groups’ receipts in 2014 and 6 percent in 2016. This is hardly the Genesis flood of corporate funding that the decision’s critics predicted.
And when it comes to foreign financing of American elections, Mr. Obama could not have been more wrong. Foreign contributions and foreign spending remain illegal. In fact, just two years after handing down Citizens United, the Supreme Court summarily affirmed the foreign money ban in Bluman v. FEC.
Democracy is alive and well in the United States of America, and Citizens United has helped it to flourish. In addition to voter turnout, political spending is a good measure of overall political participation and interest among the electorate. In the decade since Citizens United was handed down, overall election-related spending has increased in each of the five subsequent two-year election cycles. But the spending impact has been anything but one-sided.
In 2010, the influx is credited with helping Republicans retake control of the House of Representatives and to win substantial pick-ups in the Senate, but according to Federal Election Commission data, in the 2012 cycle, Mr. Obama and the Democrats had the financial advantage. Two years later, Republicans had the edge. Hillary Clinton and the Democrats far outspent Mr. Trump and the Republicans in 2016. In 2018, spending was roughly equal between the two major political parties, but in 2020, Mr. Trump and the Republicans appear to have the upper hand.
But the amount of political spending does not tell the whole story. The real consequence of Citizens United is that Americans are far less dependent on the political elites and mainstream media for their political news and information.
Citizens United and cases that followed, such as Speech Now v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, have opened up new avenues of campaign funding, and have made it possible for political outsiders to make significant inroads on the establishment, especially within the Republican Party. Mr. Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 is one such example.
Although he was outspent nearly 2-to-1 by Mrs. Clinton and the Democrats, he was able to compete against well-funded GOP establishment candidates to win the Republican nomination, and he and his supporters were able to raise and spend a sufficient amount to compete against and defeat Mrs. Clinton in the general elections.
Other outsider conservative candidates have similarly been empowered on account of Citizens United. In 2010, independent campaign activity made possible by Citizens United helped Marco Rubio to defeat the establishment candidate, then-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, in the Republican Senate primary. Mr. Rubio went on to win the Florida Senate seat that November.
The Citizens United decision is also credited with helping make possible Ted Cruz’s come-from-behind upset victory over Republican establishment candidate David Dewhurst in the 2012 Senate primary in Texas. He, too, was elected to the Senate and like Mr. Rubio is serving his second term.
More recently, the 2018 Republican pick-ups of Senate seats in Florida, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota has been attributed, at least in part, to spending made available by Citizens United, as was Ron DeSantis’ 2018 surprise primary and general election victories in the Florida governor’s race.
It remains true that Citizens United is one of the Supreme Court’s more controversial decisions of the 21st century, but the subsequent historical record thoroughly discredits the roots of the ruling’s criticism. Corporations do not dominate American elections. Nor has increased election spending impaired American democracy; instead, it has helped it to flourish by undercutting the monopolistic power of the establishment political elites and their news media enablers.
Citizens United has returned power to the hands of the people by allowing them to join together and use their money to elect the candidates of their choice. The decision has been especially beneficial in helping conservatives to elect anti-establishment candidates, and that’s the real reason why liberals and their media mouthpieces hate the decision so much.
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