After the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. FEC (2010), Barack Obama and other liberals warned that America was headed for a disaster of biblical proportions. “Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling. Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes… The dead rising from the grave. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together — mass hysteria.”
Okay, that’s from Ghostbusters, but the actual predictions sounded just as ridiculous. The New York Times predicted a return “to the robber-baron era of the 19th century,” while Obama said, “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.”
Ten years later, the Democratic candidates for president are still scaremongering about it.
“To restore our one person, one vote democracy, we must pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and stop the slide to oligarchy,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (S-USSR) tweeted.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-1/1024th of a Plan) said, “Our government is working better and better for the wealthy and well-connected—at the expense of everyone else. It’s time to get big money out of politics, and that starts with overturning Citizens United.”
Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-Church of Social Justice) framed Citizens United as a threat to democracy, pairing it with the Democrats’ absurd pipe dreams of rewriting the Constitution in a not-so-veiled attempt to ensure Republicans can never win again. He pledged to launch “a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-I’m Goldilocks, I promise!) argued that “being a public servant should be about having the best ideas and experience—not the biggest bank account. We need to take back our democracy and overturn Citizens United.”
Not to be outdone, former Vice President Joe Biden pledged to go further than overturning this Supreme Court decision. “We have to end Citizens United, but we can’t stop there. It’s time we eliminate all private dollars from federal elections and return our democracy to the people,” he tweeted.
We have to end Citizens United, but we can't stop there. It's time we eliminate all private dollars from federal elections and return our democracy to the people.
— Joe Biden (Text Join to 30330) (@JoeBiden) January 22, 2020
Take a moment and ponder what Joe Biden is saying here — it should shine a light on exactly why Citizens United isn’t just good, but necessary.
Biden wants to “eliminate all private dollars from federal elections.” Under current campaign finance law, individuals can only contribute a fixed amount to a political candidate. Political Action Committees directly support candidates, but cannot coordinate with them. Individuals can band together to unite their voices and speak out on particular issues, so long as they do not directly support or oppose any particular candidate.
With the stroke of a pen, Joe Biden would erase all of that and replace it with a government-funded program that would fairly — trust me, I pinky swear! — either give every candidate a certain amount of money or give money to people who would then give it to candidates. Can you think of a system more vulnerable to corruption? Which candidates would qualify for the government dollars? How would each citizen get the same amount of money? Who would oversee such a system and how could he or she be trusted to carry out this gargantuan task fairly?
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Who?) — yes, the Colorado senator is still a presidential candidate — came the closest of any candidate to explaining how Citizens United actually works.
“Let’s say a lawmaker wants to hold a hearing on climate change. All the Kochs & other billionaires have to do is rattle the coins in their pockets & threaten to fund the primary opponent in that lawmaker’s next election. Just like that, the climate hearing is dropped,” he tweeted. “This Corruption of INACTION—the hearings not held, the bills not passed—is the consequence of Citizens United. It’s why, for the past 10 years, we’ve made no progress on our most pressing challenges. Climate change being the best example.”
Whenever Democrats try to demonize “Dark Money,” they always go for the causes they vehemently disagree with. Bennet says the Kochs will stop climate change hearings. But climate change hearings actually do happen — because no amount of money will convince the true believers to reconsider climate alarmism. What “dark money” can do is enable critics of climate alarmism to get their message out there so it remains a viable political option.
Of course, Citizens United did not just help climate critics. It defended all citizens’ rights to band together — to incorporate — and put money behind causes they believe in. The decision protected the free speech rights of unions, environmentalist groups, think tanks, LGBT lobbies, and activist organizations of all persuasions. The Court ruled that corporations have the free speech rights of people, but in legal terms, all a “corporation” means is a group of individuals banding together for a common purpose.
Contrary to popular belief, Citizens United did not let loose the dogs of corporate political warfare. As Committee for Justice Executive Director Curt Levey explained, this Supreme Court decision left most of the limits on political spending in place. “The total ban on corporate contributions to candidates, political parties, and political action committees remains in place,” he explained.
“The continuing ban on corporate contributions is just one reason why the ubiquitous descriptions of Citizens United as a sea change are greatly exaggerated. You would never know that billionaires have always been permitted to spend unlimited amounts on independent campaign ads, or that corporate campaign ads masquerading as issue ads – for example, ‘call candidate Smith and tell him to end his support for killing baby seals’ – were already protected by the First Amendment,” Levey wrote. “In fact, a majority of states already permit unlimited corporate spending for explicit campaign ads in state races. Seven even allow unlimited corporate contributions to candidates. Yet there’s no evidence of greater corruption in those states.”
Meet the apocalypse: it’s business as usual.
Of course, this Supreme Court decision did have some impact on elections, but not when it comes to entrenching the powerful. Quite the reverse.
As Bradley Smith noted in The Wall Street Journal, “The decision made it easier to promote (or criticize) a candidate without help from party leaders or media elites.”
This led to some upset victories where challengers defeated establishment political figures: “Hillary Clinton outspent Mr. Trump 3 to 1 in 2016. Congressional leaders and big-time fundraisers such as Reps. Eric Cantor (R., Va.) and Joe Crowley (D., N.Y.) lost their seats to primary challengers who spent a fraction of what the incumbents did. Incumbent re-election rates in the House never dipped below 94% from 1996 to 2008, but did in 2010, 2012 and 2018.”
Non-profit groups were able to promote issues that voters believed in, even when the party establishments disagreed. Suddenly, political challengers became more viable.
Freeing up political speech did not result in less democracy, but in more dynamic representative government. Sure, many tea party candidates got elected, but so did the Bernie Sanders-style socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The very “corruption of inaction” Michael Bennet so deplores is the result of a government that better represents the people — and the political polarization that drives some Americans toward preserving free markets, life, and the Constitution and others toward abortion, judicial activism, and a socialist take-over.
Sometimes “democracy,” like the apocalypse, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
So, why do Democrats oppose Citizens United when it actually bolsters voters’ options? The party of big government cannot stomach the idea of allowing people to freely spend their own money to support causes they believe in. As the ostensible moderate Joe Biden said, “It’s time we eliminate all private dollars from elections.” It would be far better for “progressive” bureaucrats to run the political free speech market. Then the bureaucrats could finally silence those pesky critics of climate alarmism and Michael Bennet could get his “progress” on climate change. Oh, that would wreck the economy you say? Wait, you can’t say it — that’s the point.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.