In the News

Obama was right, Alito was wrong: Citizens United has corrupted American politics

Jan 20, 2020

By Tiffany Muller

Ten years ago this week, a narrow majority of the Supreme Court overturned a century of campaign finance law, giving wealthy donors and corporations nearly unlimited ability to influence our elections. In his State of the Union address a week later, President Barack Obama said the controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision “will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.” Justice Samuel Alito famously shook his head, mouthing “not true.”

A decade later, it’s clear that President Obama was right and Justice Alito was wrong. With its decision, the court threw out restrictions on corporate and union election spendingnarrowed the legal definition of “corruption” and triggered an influx of undisclosed dark money spending on our elections.

The court’s naive view of our electoral process set the stage for 10 years of billions of dollars corrupting our politics and dictating national policy on everything from the cost of prescription drugs to climate change to gun violence.

For example, during the attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017, a Republican super PAC publicly withdrew its support of Rep. David Young of Iowa because he expressed opposition to the GOP health care bill. Young soon switched his position, voted for the bill, and millions from the super PAC flowed into his district to help him win.

Wealthy donors have a bullhorn

That is corruption pure and simple, and it happens all the time in American politics. It now happens so often that the Supreme Court’s naiveté begins to look more like willful ignorance.

Our campaign finance system was broken long before Citizens United, but it has given a bullhorn to wealthy donors, who already had the loudest voices in the room. The overwhelmingly white, male and older donor class has become even more homogeneous. This elite set of Americans has scored political power on a magnitude not seen since the Gilded Age. In fact, just 11 people gave $1 billion — or a fifth of all donations to super PACs — from 2010 to 2018.

We now have elections where the candidates themselves play secondary roles in their own campaigns. For example, in Pennsylvania’s 2016 U.S. Senate race, outside spending topped $123 million, while the candidates combined for less than $50 million. This arms race not only impacts who can run for and win political office, but it also changes  policy debates.

Climate change used to be a bipartisan issue, but that ended with Citizens United, even as global temperatures continued to rise. Meanwhile, since the decision, the energy sector has poured over $719 million into our federal elections, about a quarter of it in unlimited expenditures. The NRA has invested nearly $125 million in federal elections since the decision, nearly all of it in unlimited spending — helping to effectively block every attempt to pass universal background checks, though almost all Americans (75%-93% in recent polls) support that reform.