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Political Inequality Module Backlines

They Say: “Education Not Sufficient (Citizens United)”

Citizens United didn’t ruin democracy — recent elections prove.


Brandus 16 — Paul Brandus, Columnist for MarketWatch, Independent Member of the White House Press Corps, 2016 (“Opinion: Why Citizens United didn’t kill democracy,” MarketWatch, February 26th, Available Online at http://www.marketwatch.com/story/why-citizens-united-didnt-kill-democracy-2016-02-26, Accessed 07-14-2017)

The warnings were fast and furious: the sky is falling! Unlimited amounts of cash will wreck American democracy! Those with the deepest pockets will have an unfair advantage, be able to sway elections and buy their way into office!



Sway elections? You mean like Jeb Bush —whose “Right to Rise” Super PAC raised nearly $119 million? All that dough bought him was humiliation and a one-way ticket to presidential neverland. Too big to fail? The collapse of the mega-wealthy Bush campaign will go down as one of the biggest busts ever.

And you mean like Bernie Sanders? The Vermont-by-way-of-Brooklyn socialist is giving Hillary Clinton the fight of her life—and he doesn’t even have a Super PAC. Unless you count an obscure outfit called “Collective Actions,” run by one guy in Burlington. Its cash haul to date: $8,795.

These aren’t exactly the scenarios the chicken little crowd warned of back in 2010 when the Supreme Court issued its infamous Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission ruling. The court’s 5-4 ruling struck down barriers preventing corporations from directly funneling money into electioneering. Democrats shrieked, even though the ruling also applied to labor unions—a traditional Democratic bastion—saying they too, could do as they pleased.

At the time, the knee-jerk reaction from the liberal camp—from Barack Obama on down—was that conservative Super PACs would soon swamp the political process and drown out the left with gobs of cash. Indeed, this appeared to be the case in 2012, when, according to OpenSecrets.org, conservative Super PACs spent $577 million, and liberal Super PACs $237 million. But what did conservatives get for their half-billion dollar investment? Another four years of Obama.

Perhaps big bets on Mitt Romney then and Bush now panned out because they were poor candidates, stiffs who couldn’t be saved by any amount of money. After all, put lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig. Maybe. Or does it mean—as Donald Trump and Sanders have shown this year—that other factors are more important, like an instinctive ability to better connect with the electorate?

Meantime, even more recent data suggests that the money game isn’t nearly as lopsided as the 2012 figures above suggest. In 2014, the top 20 industries and interest groups in the country—as compiled by OpenSecrets.org—funneled $1.07 billion into PACs, parties and individual candidates. Of this amount, 53.4% was spent on conservative causes, 46.6% on liberal ones. An edge, but not an overwhelming one. Conservatives added to their majority in the House and seized control of the Senate that midterm year—but the fairly even money split suggests that other factors were in play, like the fact that millions of Democratic voters who cast ballots for Obama in 2012 were too lazy to vote in 2014. Can anyone prove that a narrow financial advantage made the difference for Republicans in 2014—when far bigger advantages clearly didn’t at other times?

It’s also important to note that for all the left’s anxiety about Citizens United, Super PAC cash isn’t the only thing that greases the political wheels. Hillary Clinton has raised $130 million on her own—more than twice what pro-Clinton Super PACs have brought in. And Sanders? $96 million—with the average donation, he brags, of just $27. That’s incredible for a guy most Americans never even heard of a year ago.

Add in the $8.4 million brought in by Democrats who have since dropped out and the total figure is $235.1 million in this cycle. Republicans have raised 14% more: $269.1 million, but this represents the combined efforts of 17 people.



Did Citizens United give corporations and unions too much power over our electoral process? The electoral record since the 2010 makes it hard to make that case. But there is one thing about the ruling that needs to be changed: transparency. When you set up a Super PAC, you can be just as deceptive as you want when naming it. On this one point, President Obama’s original criticism of the Citizens ruling was spot on:

“They can buy millions of dollars worth of TV ads — and worst of all, they don’t even have to reveal who’s actually paying for the ads. Instead, a group can hide behind a name like ‘Citizens for a Better Future,’ even if a more accurate name would be ‘Companies for Weaker Oversight.’”

He turned out to be right. Example: Unless you were willing to do some snooping around, you’d never know who, say the “America Leads” Super PAC was set up to help (answer: Chris Christie). Or “Future45” (an anti-Clinton fund).

Unions and companies—which represent or employ tens of millions of Americans—have a right to express themselves politically. But hiding behind a cloak of anonymity when doing so? That’s just wrong.



Citizens United hasn’t expanded corporate control over democracy.


Golinkin 13 — Jeb Golinkin, Columnist at The Week, Law Clerk to U.S. District Judge James R. Nowlin of the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, former Senior Editor and Reporter at Frum Forum, holds a J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law, 2013 (“The Citizens United myth,” The Week, June 24th, Available Online at https://theweek.com/articles/462892/citizens-united-myth, Accessed 07-14-2017)

Politico's Byron Tau recently detailed the results of a survey of 151 PAC staffers from corporate and trade associations regarding the way they like to spend their money. As Tau noted, "[d]espite the fears of progressive activists in the post-Citizens United era, a new study finds that corporations are still very hesitant to embrace super PACs."

This should not stun anyone. Writing at FrumForum over three years ago, I more or less predicted that this would be the case, mostly because corporations, especially public corporations, have customers and shareholders from all different walks of life to worry about. The last thing they are interested in is being seen as a political symbol since politics is a 50-50 game and companies prefer to please all comers. An excerpt from what I wrote three years ago:

Does anyone really think that the CEO of a Fortune 500 is going to be stupid enough to fund campaign advertisements? Think about it logically. It's hard to imagine a more "Red" corporation than Wal-Mart. But consider the following facts: Each week, about 100 million Americans head to Wal-Mart to shop. A poll in 2004 found that 76% of voters that shop at Wal-Mart once a week voted for Bush. That's an astonishing margin. But that still means that 24% of Wal-Mart shoppers voted for someone else (23% said they voted for Kerry). If you do the math, if 100 million customers make it to Wal-Mart next week, 23 million might be liberals. If Wal-Mart runs an advertisement supporting a candidate or makes campaign contributions to a candidate, it runs the risk that the New York Times finds out about it, puts a story on the front page, and as a result, 23 million of their customers may take their business elsewhere. Not only that, if they contribute, and then lose, they have pissed off the other party unnecessarily. Tell me, what good does that do? [FrumForum]



There is plenty more evidence that pushes back against the theories that Citizens United has somehow turned our democracy into a sham. For instance, in a paper prepared for the 2012 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, professors Timothy Werner (McCombs Business School, UT Austin) and John J. Coleman (University of Wisconsin — Madison) found "minimal effects for the overall campaign finance regulatory regimes in general and corporate and union independent expenditures specifically on public policy outcomes. These findings suggest that critics' fears about the possible effects of Citizens United at the national level may be overstated."

That finding was more or less echoed by Matt Bai in his excellent New York Times Magazine cover story exploring the real impact of Citizens United on our elections. As Bai put it, "if you're trying to understand what's really going on with politics and money, the accepted narrative around Citizens United is, at best, overly simplistic. And in some respects, it's just plain wrong."



Money plays an outsized role in politics, and that is a problem. But overturning Citizens United will not solve those problems. Let's re-focus on arriving at solutions that actually address our problems.



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