Citizens United, Columbians Divided

In 2010, the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission held that corporations and unions could not be prohibited from broadcasting electioneering communications (ads that mention a candidate) within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary, which had previously been the restriction of the McCain-Feingold Act since 2002. What does this mean for the way campaigns and policymaking are influenced in the future?

Democrats (Janine Balekdjian):

Citizens United cut against a century of both legal and judicial precedent, including the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, which the high court upheld in McConnell v. FEC (2003) before overturning it in Citizens United. Furthermore, the Citizens United decision overturned Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990), which upheld campaign finance laws. When these laws were passed, Congress took a stance on something that should be obvious: corporations are not people.

In reifying the dangerous idea of corporate personhood, the Supreme Court claimed defense of free speech. But why are corporations entitled to First Amendment rights? Citizens United does not grant anyone free speech where it was previously restricted. The Supreme Court, in effect, gave a few ultra-wealthy and powerful corporate executives more speech than the rest of Americans who are not privileged enough to have corporate treasuries at their disposal. The dangerous and extensive influence (excluding only direct donations) this ruling gives to this select few removes democracy from where it belongs: the hands of the entire American public.

The practical implications of Citizens United were made depressingly clear during the 2010 midterm elections, which boasted the dubious distinction of having hundreds of millions of dollars deluge the political system from outside organizations, including 78 Super Political Action Committees (PACs). Ironically, Citizens United made disclosure rules so lax that estimates for how much money was spent vary by orders of magnitude among different sources.

The horrific nightmare the political landscape has become post-Citizens United is not about the Republican or Democratic parties. It is about keeping America democratic with a small "d." Candidates, already so beholden to special interests, are given fewer and fewer incentives to pay attention to the people they ostensibly represent. Why should they, when they can be the beneficiaries of potentially unlimited corporate windfalls?

Libertarians (Andrew Goss): 

Individual liberties should be preserved above all other concerns, and people need information in order to protect, exercise and enjoy their liberties as best as they can. Speech, while an important liberty, should not be legally anonymous because anonymity insulates speakers from the consequences of their actions. The anonymity that Citizens United v. FEC allows to political donors makes the system less transparent because it strips citizens of their right to know who is funding political campaigns.

Given the current state of American politics, the political process will not change significantly as a result of the decision. Throughout American history, power has been increasingly centralized in the federal government, leading to a high concentration of influential people in Washington. This has drawn an army of special interest groups and lobbyists to the capital, each looking to shape policy to its advantage, leading to corruption and special interest influence on national policy. Allowing the same interest groups who finance candidates to run independent election communication perpetuating the corruption in the system.

Even though the decision doesn’t fix the system, it does force PACs to disclose their donors, but unfortunately, non-profit organizations registered with the IRS as 501c(4)s are allowed to donate to PACs without disclosure of their 501c(4) donors. This anonymity prevents the public from learning who sponsored the advertisements they see, keeping people from making informed decisions, while simultaneously insulating sponsors from the potential repercussions of their donations. Until this restriction is removed, the transparency of the political process is further restricted, and Citizens United provides a means for further corruption. The public has a right to know the source of funding for political campaigns.

Republicans (Jesse Eiseman):

The most important question about Citizens United is whether it negatively impacts American freedom. Everyone’s heard the arguments about money and speech. The more interesting take on the question, however, focuses on the effects of Citizens United and the traditional effects of free speech.

Free speech increases debate across a society and serves an important educational purpose. As activists compete for influence, they’re forced to look for new ideas and insights, broadening and deepening the debate. They’re forced to reach out to people who would be otherwise apathetic and try to woo them into the political sphere. Politics has seeped into every pore of American society.

Free speech also greatly affects institutions. The basic institutions of our lives should be private; government-run bureaucracies are inefficient, ossified, dispassionate and slow to change.  As influential private institutions, corporations shape the basic contours of our social existence. The larger and more plentiful the private political institutions that exist in our society, the more opportunity we have to get involved in politics, the more effective our donations are, and the larger the voluntary sphere is. This is why both sides of the aisle instinctively like populism.

It is also crucial to remember details about Citizens United itself. It was not an evil New York corporation, but a group of citizens that came together to advocate for a particular cause.  Organizations like Citizens United make this country more free. There are interest groups for every possible point of view that can now begin campaigning directly for candidates. They can organize, buy television ads, and actively help their candidates get elected. Without being forced to work directly through the campaigns, advocates can now spend more money during the electoral races, meaning that more voters will be approached and given more information with which to judge candidates.

Socialists (Virgilio Lazardi):

In favoring the demands of an interest group – ironically, one that is dedicated to restoring America to its citizens’ control – the Supreme Court has put the final nail in the coffin of an already-diluted American “democracy.” But even before Citizens United, the federal government permitted a campaigning process in which millions of dollars are a requirement to run for public office. It then allowed over 2,000 PACs, mainly representing managers and shareholders, to shift the entire political spectrum to the right and diminish the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties.

However, the ruling should not be seen as an unprecedented assault on our principled "liberties.” Already, the United States has resurrected levels of income disparity reminiscent of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to the Federal Reserve, in 2007, the top 10 percent of Americans owned 73.1 percent of the country’s net worth, while the Congressional Budget Office reports that the top 1 percent’s increase in total income share was around 120 percent from 1979 to 2007; in the same period, the wages of the bottom 90 percent have been stagnant. When the country operates under a mode of production that values accumulation, short-term profit growth and free market “efficiency," is it any surprise that the political system adjusts to economic policies?

Looking forward, there will be record spending on a political campaign whose result will provide no substantial benefit to the American public. After all, when both candidates’ pockets are tied to the goodwill of magnates, what hope is there for systemic change?

As Columbia Business School professor Joseph Stiglitz noted in an article published in Vanity Fair, the United States has become a nation “of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.” Nowhere is that fact more obvious than in the Citizens United case.