On the second anniversary of Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that corporations are people, there’s bad news and good news.
The bad news: we’re seeing the full impact of the ruling, with the creation of PACs — political action committees — with innocuous Mom and apple pie-sounding names, like Make Us Great Again and Winning Our Future, funded by unlimited anonymous corporate contributions.
The good news is that the ruling has galvanized a grassroots backlash: if you’re mad as hell and want to join the fight to rid our democracy of toxic big money, there’s an explosion of grassroots opposition for you to plug into today, or whenever you’re ready.
First, a little history. Corporate political contributions have been stirring outrage for more than 100 years, since they helped elect Teddy Roosevelt in 1904. Once elected, the savvy Roosevelt got in front of a movement to outlaw those contributions, resulting in passage of the Tillman Act.
But the corporations didn’t just slink away in defeat; they developed ever more creative ways to skirt the law and influence elections.
In Citizens United, eight Supreme Court justices ruled in 2010 that while corporations couldn’t contribute to individual candidates they could give to political action committees that do not, supposedly, have formal ties to a particular candidate.
In their ruling, the justices took a flawed, too narrow view of the way in which money corrupts politics. First, they said that since the PACs aren’t linked to individual candidates, the contributions couldn’t be used to bribe the candidates, or extract a quid pro quo.
The court ignored the well-known fact that the monster PACs do establish informal but strong ties to individual candidates.
In addition, the court misstates the more insidious way massive corporate cash corrupts our government. As Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig points out, large corporate contributions ensure that only those candidates, regardless of party, who can collect those contributions, and espouse a corporate-friendly political agenda, stand any chance.
This creates a political system that thwarts goals of left and right.
If we don’t reverse Citizens United and confront corporate power, we can expect more corporate bailouts with no questions asked, and fewer consumer, environmental, employee and investor protections. We can expect more tax breaks for the 1 percent and more austerity for the 99 percent.
At WheresOurMoney, my colleague Harvey Rosenfield has proposed a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United that is easily understood and will withstand any legal challenge. You can read more about it here. There’s a great video with background and ideas about fighting Citizens United here.