Politics & Policy

Democracy Is Surviving Citizens United

Sanders supporters at a rally in Stockton, Calif., May 10, 2016. (Max Whittaker/Reuters)
Money can buy candidates airtime but not the voters’ approval — witness Sanders and Trump.

Augury is a lost art. When the Supreme Court opened the door for unlimited political expenditures by associations of people, many read the birds’ flight patterns and predicted tidings of doom. Critics of the Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) foresaw a dystopian future in which corporations controlled the political consciousness of American citizens. Cries rang out: The New York Times editorial board warned that the decision “paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.” President Barack Obama said it would “open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.” Justice John Paul Stevens, in dissent, argued that the decision “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation.”​ The Court, in Citizens United, struck down limits to independent political expenditures. The subsequent increase in political expenditures — which is indeed real — is a consequence about which nobody should be surprised. But the world foreordained by the seers at the newspaper of record and given the ultimate platform by his excellency, a world in which corporate spending drowns out the will of the people, has yet to arrive. Indeed, in 2016’s presidential election, the opposite is happening. The birds must have been confused.

The election thus far represents a massive data point against the hypothesis that Citizens United would break democracy. Go back to the Republican primary, where the conventional wisdom was that Jeb Bush would be propelled to victory by his Right to Rise super PAC. Right to Rise spent more than $86 million over the course of the campaign, according to NPR. But none of that money could help Bush stand up straight next to Donald Trump on the debate stage, nor could it mitigate the withering effect of Trump’s “low energy” moniker for Bush. Right to Rise, an association of like-minded people who believed Jeb Bush was the best candidate for the country and wanted to persuade fellow citizens of that, spent aggressively on TV commercials. But spend as they did, few bought what they were selling. No amount of money could mitigate Bush’s defectiveness as a candidate.

In that very same piece, NPR insisted that “all of this doesn’t mean super PACs don’t or can’t work — or that big money isn’t important anymore.” For evidence, they cited the fact that the then-active Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio each had his own war chest. Funny story about those guys . . . In sum, the amount of money spent by super PACs specifically against Trump exceeded $42 million. Not only were candidate-aligned super PACs unable to elevate their candidates, but anti-Trump super PACs were unable to knock out Trump. Super PACs favoring Cruz teamed up with ones dedicated to stopping Trump in Indiana, spending more than $6 million on advertisements; Trump beat Cruz by 17 percentage points.

What about the Democratic primary? Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders; the headline “You’ll Never Guess Which Democrat Has More Super-PAC Money” would bait no one into clicking. Clinton outraised Sanders $93 million to $4 million in outside money. Yet Sanders mounted a remarkably successful campaign for a crotchety old socialist from Vermont, and built it on the back of $226 million, almost all of which came from small donations by loyal supporters. He raised enough money to flood New York’s airwaves with advertising worth $6.8 million; Sanders promptly lost the state by 16 percentage points. Sanders made money, but not the scary kind warned about by the Times. And while it allowed him to keep his campaign running well past the point of mathematical plausibility, the argument that money is responsible for either his success or his eventual defeat is not a serious one. Sanders succeeded in states that held caucuses, where fervency of support is imperative, and in states whose demographics were to his advantage — i.e., where there were more white people.

Vox populi is not only alive and well, it’s defiant.

Now let’s turn to the general election, where Trump’s frugality has been the source of media glee. Clinton thus far has outspent Trump on advertising, $57 million to $4 million. This staggering disparity is even greater in battleground states, to the tune of $46 million to $1 million. But Trump continues to stay afloat despite his penny-pinching. Recent polling from battleground states suggests that the election is a real contest. And Trump has made a point to note that despite the Clinton campaign having far outspent him, he remains close, spinning a negative into a positive.

Ink has been spilled on the assumption that Citizens United is fundamentally changing our elections — the evidence marshaled in support of that claim boils down to an (often massive) increase in spending. But what change does this spending increase indicate other than a change in the amount of money being spent? The Washington Post couched the change solely in terms of money. The U.S. News and World Report did too, and noted that such money has come only from a few people. The New York Times doubled down on this approach, listing out the people who have spent the most money. Only Demos bothered to examine the actual results of this cash influx on elections, but it labeled “large donors” those who contributed more than $200, citing dubious numbers about majoritarian support for left-wing economic policy. Nevertheless, each of these articles claims that the nature of American democracy is changing. Democracy is wilting in the face of Big Money.

The point is not that money played no role in keeping these candidates afloat. On the contrary, ample money is necessary to sustaining political campaigns. Candidates need it to pay their campaign staff, rent out venues for rallies, cover travel expenses, and much more. But the “money in politics” that doomsayers warned us about is supposed to be worse. It’s supposed to come from corporations and rich people; it’s supposed to come in massive sums; and it’s supposed to drown out the will of the people. This last step is crucial. The hypothesis that our democracy is threatened by Citizens United rests on the proposition that independent expenditures will translate into inauthentic popular support. Justice Stevens predicted that the “interests” of corporations “may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters.” Corporate spending, the augurs insisted, will suppress the democratic consensus.

But vox populi is not only alive and well, it’s defiant. Sure, the two major-party nominees themselves instantiate wealth and corruption to a grotesque degree. But Trump is succeeding despite super PACs, not because of them. He doesn’t even have one that is willing to spend large sums. His campaign is as anti-corporate as any, feeding old, fringe fears that a globalist cabal controls American policy. Clinton, the darling of corporate boardrooms, struggled to beat back socialist Sanders despite the active work of party machinery to undermine his campaign. Her unparalleled ability to inspire revulsion has accidentally given acolytes of the workers’ revolution a future they can believe in: Socialism now carries populist appeal in the United States. And touting resistance to super PAC money and independence of large donors has been an effective strategy for both Trump and Sanders. Some corporate dystopia this is.

A citizen might trust a news network but support candidates who appear on it only if they espouse messages with which she already agrees.

Popular support never came for Jeb Bush. And it never came in large enough quantities for Cruz. Or Rubio. Yes, money is being spent at a greater clip on elections. That much was never in dispute — of course independent expenditures would rise after Citizens United. The point advanced by the Court’s majority was that an increase in spending on political campaigns by independent associations of people is equivalent to an increase in political speech. And the efficacy of political speech, as demonstrated aptly by the 2016 election, rests not in how much it is circulated but rather in how popular its expressed ideas are. No matter how many Billy Mays commercials aired, one will have a hard time finding useless products like Mighty Putty and Hercules Hooks in use today. And no matter how many pro-Jeb commercials were aired by Right to Rise, one will find incommensurately few people who actually supported Jeb Bush. It turns out that voters, like consumers, evaluate. They do not simply gravitate to the candidacy that has the most money behind it.

In politics, exposure does tend to translate into popular support. But this tendency has little to do with an automatic relationship between support and TV appearances. A citizen might trust a news network but support candidates who appear on it only if they espouse messages with which she already agrees. Citizens are clearly less inclined to trust advertisements from, for example, Right to Rise; they’ll change the channel in a huff if an ad disparages their political tribe. If political speech by corporations can be regulated, as opponents of Citizens United would like, what stands in the way of regulating — censoring — political speech by media corporations? After all, this type of speech is having a much greater effect on the 2016 election’s outcome than super PAC commercials are. Well, never fear. The FEC is looking into it. The fact is, independent expenditures on political campaigns do not pose a threat to the legitimacy of national elections. And while there is limited evidence that corporate money is increasingly being spent on local campaigns, the only conclusion that follows is that more speech about these local elections is being hashed out than normal.

Wannabe oracles like the Times insisted that the influx of money would be a sufficient condition for the corruption of democracy. 2016 is evidence that Americans are more agentic than they believed.


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