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Undoing the 'Citizens United' Damage | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Undoing the 'Citizens United' Damage

Editor's Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel's column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read all of Katrina's column here.

It will be a year this week since Chief Justice John Roberts and his conservative activist colleagues on the Supreme Court joined together in a dramatic assault on American democracy. Their decision in the Citizens United case overturned more than a century's worth of precedent by awarding corporations the rights of citizens with regard to electioneering. The court did away with limits on when corporations can spend on elections, how much they can spend and how they can spend their money, allowing unlimited contributions from corporate treasuries to flood the electoral landscape.

As The Nation noted in the days after the case was decided, "This decision tips the balance against active citizenship and the rule of law by making it possible for the nation's most powerful economic interests to manipulate not just individual politicians and electoral contests but political discourse itself."

According to Bill de Blasio, New York City's public advocate, Citizens United spending—that is, spending that was only made possible by the Court's ruling—accounted for 15 percent of the roughly $4 billion spent on the 2010 midterm elections. Eighty-five million dollars of Citizens United money was spent on US Senate races alone. Worse, 30 percent of all spending by outside groups was funded by anonymous donations, an illegal action prior to the ruling. Forty million of the dollars spent on Senate races came from sources that might never be revealed.

But as striking as these consequences might be, the 2010 election was just an experiment, the first opportunity to test the new law. In future elections, corporations and shadowy organizations will have a clearer understanding of the boundaries they are operating within, a reality that is sure to translate into more undisclosed cash. And the savvier corporate players know that the mere threat of a corporate onslaught of funding for or against a candidate is enough to win legislative favor, in effect blunting prospects for sound regulation, consumer protection and fair tax policies. As former senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), himself a victim of Citizens United spending, said, "It is going to be worse in 2012 unless we do something—much worse." 

Editor's Note: Read all of Katrina's column here.

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