10 years later, Americans stand opposed to Citizens United
Prevailing narratives portray the American people as sharply divided on nearly every issue. Political polarization seems to permeate every aspect of our lives. But the reality is much less black-and-white than we are led to believe. While Americans do hold issue-specific disagreements, there is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that politics as usual is not working and that our government is in need of fundamental reform.
The average American, regardless of political ideology, does not feel represented in our system, and for good reason — they aren’t. Policy outcomes rarely reflect the wishes of the majority of Americans, while the preferences of economic elites greatly influence legislation. This system, where ultra-wealthy donors and special interests exert control over Washington, has been forming since the 1970s, but it was exacerbated by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case, which upended former campaign finance limits by stating that unlimited political spending, by individuals or by corporations, is protected as free speech under the First Amendment.
In the 10 years since Citizens United, the biggest effect to the political system has been to “engage and empower the very wealthiest Americans, across the political spectrum,” according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. The Brennan Center for Justice says the ruling created a new political landscape that “favors the super rich above all others.”
In 2000, approximately $1.6 billion was spent on congressional elections. In 2018, the number had jumped to $5.7 billion. Total individual donors to Super PACs grew from $299 million to $1.1 billion in just the two years from 2014 to 2016. Total spending in the 2020 elections is projected to top $10 billion. The proliferation of campaign spending has turned into a political arms race that compels the two major political parties and candidates for elected office to seek donors who can cut the biggest checks and appease their ultra-wealthy donors by passing favorable legislation, regardless of how it affects their constituents or the American people at large.
There is a silver lining to the story, however. While the Citizens United ruling has proved disastrous for our democratic self-governance, its effects are unifying Americans of all political persuasions, who see the effects of a big money system that drowns out their voices in a cacophony of cash from wealthy mega-donors. The cross-partisan movement that is now fomenting embodies the same energy that has led to systemic change in our nation’s past—and it’s calling for the only solution that will address the Supreme Court’s wrong decision in Citizen United: passing a constitutional amendment.
Powerful, moneyed forces are working diligently to keep the pay-to-play system intact, in part by politicizing critical democratic reforms. The movement for an amendment to address this issue has been deliberately mischaracterized as a liberal pursuit. This could not be further from the truth.
Opposition to unlimited political spending is neither a liberal nor a conservative issue. In recent surveys, Americans across the political spectrum say there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and corporations can spend on campaigns, that big donors have more influence than others, and that political corruption is the biggest crisis facing the nation. A constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United is backed by 66 percent of Republican voters, and ending political corruption (i.e. “draining the swamp”) was a key factor in Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential bid.
Conservatives have plenty of reasons to support the amendment. As Republican former Sen. Jim Rubens put it, ending the dominance of big money in politics is tied to “the fundamental conservative principles” around which the Republican party is built. Unlimited political spending is undermining free-market capitalism and faith in the American constitutional republic. In a recent poll 61 percent of Americans aged 18-24 have a positive view of socialism, and only 17 percent of voters trust the federal government.
Meanwhile big government occupies and controls a larger share of the economy and increasingly picks economic winners and losers via tax subsidies, regulatory carve-outs, spending programs and contract awards. Businesses compete by buying influence in Washington, rather than by offering better products and services to consumers. Republican former Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa says Citizens United “has genetically altered our democratic DNA, pushing American politics in an oligarchic, corporatist direction.”
Another myth surrounding the amendment movement is that it is anti-capitalist. The amendment, in fact, would help re-establish the principles of competition and innovation that underpin American capitalism. Currently, a small number of huge global corporations are able to mobilize armies of lobbyists and pump money into Super PACs to influence elections and policies, quashing competition from small businesses that do not have the budget to compete.
Hundreds of business leaders from across the nation have expressed concerns about the implications of pay-to-play politics for our economy and our global competitiveness. The Committee for Economic Development (CED), a nonpartisan, business-led public policy organization has long advocated increased disclosure and transparency. In a 2013 CED report, 87 percent of surveyed business executives say the U.S. campaign finance system is in need of major reform. Rules that foster pay-to-play do not help business, but threaten innovation, healthy markets, and economic growth.
Americans of all backgrounds and political persuasions have the opportunity to effect real change and take political power back from an unaccountable elite by joining the growing movement for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics. Last year, New Hampshire became the 20th state to call on Congress to pass such an amendment, passing the halfway mark to the 38 states needed for ratification. More than 800 towns have passed resolutions in support of the amendment. Furthermore, 13 current and former 2020 presidential candidates signed a Candidate Pledge, committing to advance the amendment if they’re elected. It is time for every American to stand up and demand an end to the domination of wealthy elite special interests by ending the era of Citizens United with a constitutional amendment.
Leah Field is managing director of American Promise.