Letter Series: Citizens United

On Jan. 21, 2010, the Supreme Court decided Citizens United in a 5-4 decision. Unhappiness about this decision started gradually but has grown into a call of protest against what people now see as its result. Calls to overturn it, to create legislation to blunt its effect, and even for constitutional amendments to undo it have begun to pile one upon another. Many voters may believe the decision came out of the blue—that Citizens United was a sudden declaration that corporations are people. To the obvious solution is to declare that they are not and be done with it.

But Citizens United was not a bolt out of the blue. Instead it was the convergence of developments – in corporate history and campaign finance reform – that took place over centuries.

Citizens United, following a long line of cases, in effect, overturned both a statute and previous case law which had helped hold back the influence of corporate wealth on politics in the United States. Since the decision, corporations have poured millions of dollars into campaigns, trying to create fear or favor in members of Congress and other elected officials. Since the ruling, Super Political Action Campaigns (Super PACs) have funneled billions of dollars into elections.

It has already resulted in millions of dollars from corporations being spent on smear campaigns against former Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine, even before he secured the Democratic nomination for senator. It also resulted in one man almost single-handedly paying for the continued campaign of Newt Gingrich for president. In the spring of 2012, NPR’s This American Life aired a disturbing audio of Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting delegate from the District of Columbia, applying pressure on a corporation to give money to her campaign.

Virtually unlimited money from a few individuals and corporations may drown out the voice of civil society, leaving those who wield it in a strong position to rewrite laws and regulations on virtually any topic. Left unchecked, the power of corporate money may crowd out every other consideration in elections–including ideas, ideals, and democracy.

This is a series of four articles dispelling many of the misunderstandings about campaign finance reform after Citizens United. We, the authors of these articles, are students of the Conflict Transformation Master’s Degree program who have taken on this issue as part of our commitment to peacebuilding. We ultimately seek support of all who read this to work toward a reasonable solution to this problem which we will discuss in the last article.

Misunderstanding 1: Unlimited spending in political elections by corporations was let loose with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.

In fact, disproportionate influence in political elections has been a problem almost since corporations became pervasive in the mid-1800s.  President Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1864 that “corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow.” The floodgate to corporate campaign contributions was opened more than a century ago, followed by many attempts to shut it. One of the earliest cases was in 1896 when presidential candidate William McKinley’s coffers were swelled to $16 million compared William Jennings Bryan’s $600,000.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt was so heavily criticized for taking large corporate donations in the previous year’s re-election campaign that he addressed the issue in a speech to Congress saying, “All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law.”

While stemming the money given directly to candidates has had some success, indirect spending on behalf of candidates has been harder to curb.

-J.E. McNeil, student at CJP and Executive Director of On The Level


Categories: Opinion

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