Citizen's United: The New Role of Money in Politics

The Koch brothers, who have pledged $400 million dollars to defeat President Obama, pictured here.
The Koch brothers, who have pledged $400 million dollars to defeat President Obama, pictured here. | Source

There are a number of obvious reasons the 2012 election will be different from 2008. Four years ago, Democrats could take comfort in the atrocious approval ratings then-President George Bush was saddled with, and a dismal economy then worked to their advantage. Four years later, George Bush is widely disliked but has largely receded from the public's eye, and the middling economy is now President Obama's albatross as he seeks re-election. However, there is one other way in which the tables have been turned on Democrats. In 2008, Obama enjoyed a 3:1 spending advantage over his opponent John McCain. Now in the era of unlimited contributions to SuperPACs, a clear Republican financial advantage has emerged that has Democrats on the run.

In January 2010 the Supreme Court issued a ruling that sent shock waves throughout the political universe. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Kennedy's opinion ruled that the McCain-Feingold restrictions on campaign finance, which had prohibited corporations and unions from using their general resources to fund “electioneering communications” was in violation of the First Amendment. By the Court's logic, any campaign contribution is a form of free speech, and thus the bans on corporate and union contributions were unconstitutional.

The rest is history. Liberals were outraged, declaring that the Court decision was judicial activism at its worst. Democratic observers noted that the Court's reasoning—the shaky tenet that giving money is somehow free speech—opened the floodgates for vast sums of money, much of it from anonymous donors, to be channeled into influencing American elections. Democratic senators swiftly issued statements condemning the ruling, but the most high-profiled criticism naturally came from President Obama himself. In his weekly radio address shortly after the ruling, Obama declared that the ruling served to further dilute the voice of ordinary Americans in Washington, while enhancing the influence of powerful interests groups even further. “I can't think of anything more devastating to the public interest,” he said, and made further news by denouncing the ruling at his 2010 State of the Union Address, in front of the nine sitting Justices.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell welcomed the ruling, saying in a statement that the Supreme Court had struck a blow for the First Amendment. While some Republicans, John McCain chief among them, condemned the ruling, there was mostly approval and excitement on the GOP side. After all, Republicans were poised to benefit most from the ruling, with their governing philosophy more closely matching the business interests of America's wealthy.

The most significant development of the ruling was the creation of SuperPACs, or political action committees that do not make donations to parties or candidates, and do not coordinate with parties or candidates as they try to shape policy through advertising. Before Citizens United, these committees had been mere PACs, restricted by maximum donations of $2,300 per contributor. Now there are no maximum contributions, a development that a few billionaires have seized upon. In the Republican primary, it was the single-handed support of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson that kept Newt Gingrich alive; Adelson wrote the pro-Gringrich PAC a 30 million dollar check, and Santorum likewise was able to stay competitive thanks in part to millions of dollars from his deep-pocketed supporter, billionaire Foster Friess.

And that was just spending for the primary. With the general election picking up steam, millionaires and billionaires are joining in on the fun, and most of the action is on the Republican side. The Koch brothers, valued at north of $40 billion combined, have already pledged to raise up to $400 million for the conservative cause. Sheldon Adelson bounced back from his lost $30 million dollar investment like only a billionaire can, donating $10 million to the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future and promising to give a total of $100 million before the election is over.

Democrats haven't been totally left out to dry. The Court's ruling also lifted donation bans from unions, which are traditionally strong supporters of Democrats. There are some rich Democrats in this country who have written seven-figure checks to President Obama's SuperPAC, Priorities USA. And of course, there are some liberal billionaires in this country. The problem is, they aren't getting out their wallets. A combination of lingering disillusionment with Obama, and strong dislike of SuperPACs in liberal circles, has complicated Democratic outreaches to the wealthy. The numbers reflect this. Restore Our Future has outpaced Priorities USA by ten to one, leading President Obama to make the grim prediciton that he would be the first president in modern history to be outspent in his re-election.

It's been proven, then, what the Citizen's United decision and this new era of unlimited campaign contributions means for the nation's powerful. It means the ability to shape elections by raining attack ads on political opponents, and it has guaranteed a strong voice in the political process for oil titans, casino magnates, hedge fund managers, media moguls and anyone else who can casually give millions of dollars. It also offers these corporate leaders a shrewd business move; they can spend tens of millions now in order to save billions of dollars in taxes in a Romney administration.

But there is still one question that everyone should think about. As America drifts even further into the unprecedented outside influence of the SuperPAC era, we can certainly expect big oil, banks, corporate giants and Wall Street to matter more in the fight to determine our next government. And that raises the question—when all of this comes to pass, what will it mean for you?

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Comments 13 comments

Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 4 years ago from Texas

You can write all of this damning the Koch Brothers and any other billionaire or Super Pac on the right side of the equation yet cannot find any like between George Soros and the Obama Administration...look a little closer. There are some differences there. The Kochs are attempting to maintain a capitalist system in which they can conduct business and continue to make money...nothing wrong with that. Soros on the other hand is more interested in breaking America's financial backbone, destroy its Constitution and Rule of Law, and dragging it lock, stock, and barrel into the socialist muck of the world so that he can manipulate it much easier without interference from the American banking system, the FBI, or the Securities Exchange. Four years of Obama will just about take care of all that. WB


HSchneider 4 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

Great Hub, Mark. The result of Citizens United is that big business will dictate Republican policies when they are in office. Mitt Romney will be in their pocket if he is elected. The man has no spine or core. He is the "Hollow Man". Conservatives such as Wayne always pull out the bogus George Soros card in these debates. He is the only businessman giving huge sums to liberal causes and they then equate him to the Kochs. The Kochs engineered Citizens United and they are taking over our democracy and governments. Now they are restricting Democratic voting. They are the epitome of evil in our society. Total selfish greed.


Mark Sparks profile image

Mark Sparks 4 years ago from Charlottesville, Virginia Author

Hi Wayne,

Of course it is true that there are some big liberal donors. George Soros did give millions of dollars to the 2004 effort to defeat George Bush. But the truth is, outside money given to the GOP causes dwarfs what has been given to Democrats.

Now, you may be ok with this avalanche of corporate spending because it will help Romney beat Obama. But are you really comfortable with these magnates having an even larger influence on our representatives than they did before?


lovemychris profile image

lovemychris 4 years ago from Cape Cod, USA

They are the worst kind of low-lifes! Crying about big gubmint making it hard for them to do business, then using gubmint to prevent a business!! I'm speaking of Cape Wind, the proposed windfarm off Nantucket Sound. 10 years they have been using US courts to stop it. But boy oh boy do they cry if someone takes them to task. Just read up on them....paragons of non-virtue!


Mark Sparks profile image

Mark Sparks 4 years ago from Charlottesville, Virginia Author

@ HSchneider: I agree it ultimately is greed. The one thing that reassures me is that money had diminishing returns in an election, and if Democrats cobble together a billion dollars it won't really matter that they're outspent. And if they win, they can roll back this heinous decision.


Mark Sparks profile image

Mark Sparks 4 years ago from Charlottesville, Virginia Author

@lovemychris: Yeah, it's a sort of hypocrisy that's found in politicians of all parties. People complain about paying taxes, but they never complain about using roads, or being protected by police, or America having an army.


lovemychris profile image

lovemychris 4 years ago from Cape Cod, USA

Funny that....some that hate gvt LUV the military, and some that hate unions LUV police. It's non sense.


American Romance profile image

American Romance 4 years ago from America

Seems to me the corporate giants are all in Obamas back pocket? GE, GM, Banking etc? They all recieved billions stolen from the American people and given them by Obama, He wont get oil money and rightly so, he has killed more jobs in that sector than he has created, See Keystone pipeline, ............I love the fact Republicans can now have a fair advantage, For years the Pubs had to sit idly by while unions stole millions from employees and gave to Democrats. Along with Zoros one of the richest in the world supporting all democrat functions along with moveondotorg.....................Now we can play ball with new uniforms like the rest of the children.


Mark Sparks profile image

Mark Sparks 4 years ago from Charlottesville, Virginia Author

American Romance,

To me, the only "fair advantage" a candidate could have financially would be if he simply outraised the opponent by reaching out to more donors, who were restricted by campaign limits.

Now, it's possible we could all agree to severely restrict all outside groups (big oil, general motors, labor groups) and rein in both parties equally. That sounds a lot better than the situation we have now


jdmanista profile image

jdmanista 4 years ago from Ladera Ranch, CA

Mark, I have to say that I am afraid of the situation that this court ruling has created because of the fact that big business has more say in our election process than ever before. Everyone knows that they spend billions of dollars on lobbying and other efforts and now they can write checks for billions of dollars to endorse candidates through advertising, etc. This is completely underming a process in which the American people are supposed to have the ability to vote for the candidate which they feel best fit within their political views. However, they are now being through SuperPac commercials what they feel the public should know about the candidate, which may or may not be true. Voters simply are not spending the time to dig down and find out the truth and are too easily influenced by the information they receive through advertising. We are also seeing voter turnouts for major elections that will possibly shape our country for decades to come that would make the Founding Fathers roll over in their graves. This is not how the election system was intended to work.

Wayne, as ususal we are in complete agreement and I appreciate your input on this important matter.

HSchneider, you are either completely naive about or back the actions of people like George Soros. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that he is behind such unions at SEIU and is working behind the scenes to crush our way of living in the United States. He has already made billions of dollars overthrowing governements oversears and has now turned his sites to a much larger target, us. Please do not get me wrong, there are absolutely forces on the other side of the fence that are attempting to use their forces to sway the vote, but I use Soros as an example of the Progressive movement to fundamentally change our country to which I can not sit back and watch. This has opened the flood gates on both sides for massive amounts of funds to flow into these SuperPacs from JPMorgan Chase to Governement Motors and we as voters have to be able to see through the deceit and make the correct choice in the end.

I don't know if the Supreme Court's decision was right or wrong based on the First Amendment because I am far from a Constitutional Scholar but I do know that this is not how the system is supposed to work. The people of this country need to wake up and educated themselves rather than waiting for someone else to make their decision for them.

According to the United States Elections Project the voter turnout for the 2010 mid-term elections was only 41% across the country for the highest available office based on eligible voters. This is considering the huge growth of the Tea Party and the huge amount of excitement that was raised for these mid-terms. I find this number to be absolutely appalling! The turn-out for the 2008 General Election was less than 62% of eligible voters. I believer that I said this before the 2008 General Election but if we had over 90% eligible voter turn-out and Obama won I would accept it. Even if the person that I absolutely feel is wrong for this country wins the election but the voice of the people is heard, I can live with it. We just don't live in that time, though.

Lovemychris, I just have to say really quick that I wholeheartedly disagree with your statement regarding public sentiment. When you say people hate the government it is usually referring to their interference in our lives and how many of us believe that they are over-stepping their bounds and causing more harm than good. However, the military, as a branch of the government, is an amazing group of individuals who step up and risk their lives to defend our freedoms. This can almost be exactly rolled over to your second though, unions versus police. Unions were initially created to help protect the little people and give them a voice that they could never have on their own against big business. However, they have now grown so out of control that they force many workers to donate money to causes they do not believe in and back political parties that their workers have little to no interest being involved with. They are no longer no longer the voice of the little people, they are an entity amongst themselves which is going to cause the bankruptcy of cities, counties and states across the country with their unrealistic pension and retirement packages for public workers. And just for full disclosure, my wife is a local elementary school teacher, so I would be hurting my own family's finances by making the necessary changes. The police, though part of a union, are like the military in which they choose to defend our streets and risk their lives so that we can go outside and feel safe, though their jobs are ironically being threatened by the actions of their own unions as their oversized pensions are causing budget cuts which in turn cause policemen to lose their jobs. Hmm, how does that benefit members of the union?


Mark Sparks profile image

Mark Sparks 4 years ago from Charlottesville, Virginia Author

Thanks for the input,jdmanista! You know, I haven't thought much about George Soros, but his name has come so much I might have to do a little research. Maybe even write a hub about him!


jdmanista profile image

jdmanista 4 years ago from Ladera Ranch, CA

Please do, I would love to hear your thoughts and believe more people should know about this dangerous man.


American Romance profile image

American Romance 4 years ago from America

Mark we all wish they couldn't take that huge donor money, but keep in mind as I said the right suffered for years and still beat Democrats on a fairly regular basis. After the Supreme Court ruled on health care the other day, Romney raised 4 million in 6 hours basicaly 50 bucks at a time........so individuals still matter.

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