From the moment the 2010 Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. FEC came down, it scandalized liberals. The decision heralded the “hostile corporate takeover of our democratic process,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) thundered at the time.
In 2017, a commissioner of the Federal Election Commission resigned, claiming “since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, our political campaigns have been awash in unlimited, often dark money.”* This was the animating sentiment of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign for president; he even went so far as to claim that billionaires are simply “buying elections.”
This idea has given rise to a new liberal battle cry: Repeal Citizens United! Unfortunately, that tactic is naive and misguided, and relies on a misunderstanding of the law and politics surrounding the case. As we approach the 2018 congressional elections — and beyond that, the crucial presidential election of 2020 — it is more vital than ever to have a clear view of where this ruling fits into the mosaic of campaign finance law.
Such understanding will, in turn, shine light on what can be done to make the election process fairer and make politicians more responsive to all their constituents, not just the big spenders.
Some cities and states are already experimenting with programs that strengthen the voices of ordinary voters. Building on such efforts is likely to have far greater effects than continuing to demonize Citizens, whose logic is defensible on First Amendment grounds.
Most widespread in liberal circles is the idea that Citizens opened the floodgates to massive amounts of corporate spending in politics. But as many legal scholars have argued, the floodgates were already open. Citizens is not responsible for the massive amounts of money showered on favored candidates. Nor is it responsible for the rise of so-called dark money in politics.
Citizens didn’t upend our campaign finance system. It was a logical next step, given past court decisions.
Let’s put the hated decision into context. The inundation of elections with private cash is not the result of Citizens but rather was facilitated by the 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo. That case established the legal framework sanctioning billions of dollars of independent private campaign spending. In it, the Court ruled that limits on campaign donations — direct donations to candidates — are constitutional but said it was unconstitutional to limit non-donation expenditures, such as independently funded advertisements.
Such independent spending — which cannot be coordinated with candidates, according to the Court — was protected under the First Amendment as not just speech but political speech. The idea is that money is a necessary instrument for supporting a political candidate, whether it’s paying for yard signs or taking out an ad in the newspaper.
Not unreasonably, the Court ruled that limitations on independent expenditures would constitute limitations on one’s ability to support a candidate through any number of media. Placing a dollar limit on such expenditures would arbitrarily prevent certain kinds of campaign support simply by the fact of how expensive they are.
Our inability to trace campaign donations to their source — the dark money issue — is the result of the lack of federal regulations to make disclosure mandatory. And such regulations are legal; the Court said as much in Citizens, with eight of nine justices agreeing on that point! The only thing standing in the way of transparency is congressional stonewalling. In 2010, Republican senators defeated a disclosure law 59 to 39, which would have made it more difficult for donors to use legal loopholes to hide their identities.
Citizens simply has not had the seismic legal impact that many think. Since Buckley protected money as speech, the only question was whether corporations were legitimate speakers. It may surprise some to hear, but the Court had already answered this question in 1978. In First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, the Supreme Court recognized a corporate right to free speech, concluding that the value of speech in the course of political debate does not depend on the identity of the speaker. Citizens simply followed the precedent of these two cases.
So when liberals intone that “corporations aren’t people,” thinking they are making a knock-down argument against Citizens, they miss the point. Citizens did not make corporations persons. And corporations do not need to be persons to receive First Amendment protections. Citizens upheld the liberty, provided by Bellotti, of corporations to speak, and they speak under the rules provided by Buckley.
The details were debated by expert lawyer Floyd Abrams and First Amendment scholar Burt Neuborne not long after Citizens came down. Abrams noted that even the liberal Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting, recognized that the Court has “long since held that Corporations are covered by the First Amendment.”
Neuborne, in response, argued that corporations lack dignity and a conscience, which he thinks underpin the human right to free speech. But Justice Kennedy, writing for the slim five-justice majority, cited the long history of First Amendment protections for corporations. The Court had sided heavily with the Abrams view.
The Court seems inclined to limit the definition of “corruption” to explicit bribery
The only remaining question was whether there could be a justification for the government’s curtailing of that speech. Abridging political speech falls under the strictest category of judicial scrutiny; any law that does so must be justified by a “compelling state interest.”
One such objective, some suppose, is stopping corruption, a clear threat to the integrity of Congress. And indeed, in Randall v. Sorrell (2006), the Court reaffirmed that combating “corruption” rises to the level of a compelling state interest. But in Citizens, Justice Kennedy said the only kind of corruption that would count in this context is the most direct kind: “quid pro quo” corruption, which covers only vote-buying bribery.
No such vote buying was at issue in Citizens, since the controversy centered on the release of a privately funded campaign video during an advertising “blackout” period. Such off-limits periods, established by the McCain-Feingold legislation, paid insufficient heed to the Court’s precedents on money as speech and the high bar for restricting political speech.
In response to Kennedy’s narrow conception of corruption, Harvard Law professor and onetime presidential contender Lawrence Lessig has advocated for a broader idea of corruption. In his book Republic, Lost, Lessig spells out his notion of “dependence corruption,” whereby Congress is unduly responsive to big donors because they are dependent on them for campaign money.
He takes pains to argue on “originalist” grounds, hoping to appeal to the conservative majority of the Court, who attempt to cleave closely to the meaning of words as they are found in documents at the time of the Constitution’s drafting. Alas, his arguments have largely fallen on deaf judicial ears.
Where does that leave us?
We are almost certainly stuck with Citizens, not to mention Buckley and Bellotti. The major hope of many concerned lawyers and academics in the runup to the 2016 election has been dashed: the hope of filling the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat with a more liberal justice who might help reverse the decision. Instead, reformers got Neil Gorsuch.
So even if there were a stronger legal argument to be made against Citizens, that argument won’t attract enough votes in the Supreme Court. Desperation has led some, like Sanders, to push for a constitutional amendment limiting corporate campaign spending. But beyond being a pipe dream, given the institutional challenges, this tactic fails to take seriously the intricate First Amendment questions at issue.
The upshot of the Sanders campaign is its demonstration of the strength of a candidacy funded by small donations. As a candidate, Sanders rejected Super PAC funding in favor of donations averaging well under $100. Since Super PACs are the primary means individuals and corporations funnel their money to campaigns, it is historically noteworthy that a candidate without such support was capable of seriously contending for the presidency.
The lessons to draw from Sanders’s campaign is not that the system is healthy. Instead, we should conclude that the medicine to cure it may take the form of enabling citizens to make more Bernie-size donations. As of late, there has been an uptick in under-$200 donations to congressional races. In order to make such donations a staple in our democratic process, they should be supported by legislation.
Such a program has been introduced in Seattle, which gives away “democracy vouchers,” which could serve as a national model.
The basic idea is simple: Every eligible voter in Seattle receives $100 in vouchers, which they can freely donate to campaigns in the local city elections. This means every voter can participate in the pre-election process by using their money to “speak up” for candidates they endorse, and it enables lesser-known candidates to find financial support without bending the knee before big money special interests.
Theoretically, this ensures that every citizen has a baseline level of equal participation in the political process. It expands our understanding of political equality beyond “one person, one vote” to a wider notion of equal opportunity for electoral participation.
The local focus is a crucial first step to reshaping public participation in campaigns. As ACLU national legal director David Cole has argued, the most likely path to substantial federal campaign finance reform is by winning small victories in cities and states. Fostering state- and local-level initiatives accomplishes several things.
First, it draws more citizens into the debate over the proper role of money in politics — an essential step toward a sustained national conversation.
Second, it allows for political and legal experimentation. Because the Supreme Court is unpredictable, especially given the uncertainty of Justice Kennedy’s swing vote, attempting several strategies at once for public funding increases the chances that a constitutionally passable version is found.
More experiments also mean more models that can be used as contrasts to the federal system, making the weaknesses of the federal system all the more clear.
Third, such an approach will spark important legal work, which is far from a purely academic matter. By pursuing ballot initiatives and enacting local laws that address money in politics, we will invite legal challenges by entrenched, moneyed interests. This forces judges to issue ever more opinions on what is constitutional, justifying themselves along the way.
Higher courts will receive appeals and further scrutinize this reasoning. This, in turn, will attract legal academics like moths to a flame, whose work will be cited by advocates and courts.
All of this will arm the public with constitutional arguments to defend the integrity of our democracy.
There is no guarantee that all of this will be enough to counterbalance the power of big money in elections. But we can hope that bottom-up political activism will light a fire underneath the complacent rump of Congress. Increased national dialogue, successful local and state initiatives, and a proliferation of academic criticism of current law and policy all generate real political pressure.
Signs of hope
Disclosure laws are not out of reach in the coming years, and increased participation in local elections, subsidized by voucher systems, may usher in increased voter turnout for national elections. Higher turnout has been shown to heavily favor one of the two major political parties. Hint: It’s not the Republicans.
Liberals should take note of the recent special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Outside donations for the Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, were more than five times larger than for the Democrat, Conor Lamb. Yet Lamb pulled off the upset, showing money isn’t everything. He drew strength from a well-mobilized, engaged electorate.
Such vigor can be stimulated in elections across the country — particularly if we provide concrete, monetary means for voters to participate in the selection of their representatives.
Rather than continuing to rail against Citizens United, reformers should pursue strategies that increase democratic participation and encourage voter turnout.
*CORRECTION, 5/11: This passage originally suggested that the Federal Election Commission has a single commissioner, who resigned and criticized Citizens United. The agency is typically run by six commissioners; one resigned.
Scott Casleton is a PhD student at UC Berkeley studying political philosophy and intellectual history. He has a degree in philosophy from Yale University. Find him on Twitter @scott_casleton.
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