In my view, history will record that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is one of the worst decisions ever made by a Supreme Court in the history of our country.” -Sen. Bernie Sanders, 2011
Democracy For Sale
This week marks the 10th anniversary of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that independent political campaign expenditures were a form of constitutionally protected free speech and therefore could not be restricted. The law of the land is clear: corporations are people, money is speech, and corporations have First Amendment rights to “speak”—read spend—as much as they like to influence the outcome of US elections, as long as they don’t donate directly to candidates or campaigns. The precedent set by Citizens United affected later pro-corporate rulings, leading to the creation of super PACs and dark money groups, through which corporations, unions and other special interests can spend unlimited sums in support of their favored candidates and causes.
Essentially, it’s democracy for sale to the highest bidder.
As you might guess, outside spending, which was already soaring before the ruling, has skyrocketed. The Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit, nonpartisan group that studies the effects of money and lobbying, has reported that spending by super PACs and other dark money groups—whose donors are secret—has increased exponentially, from $69 million in the 2006 midterm elections to $309 million in 2010 to over a billion dollars in 2018.
Citizens United also flung wide open the floodgates to megadonors, who had previously been limited by political action committee caps. In 2018, Nevada billionaires Sheldon and Miriam Adelson spent over $123 million on conservative campaigns, while former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg spent more than $95 million on liberal ones. Former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer followed with over $73 million in contributions to liberal campaigns. Both Democrats and Republicans alike have tremendously benefited from this vicious cycle of corruption, while parties that don’t take corporate money, like the Green Party, are even more marginalized than they had already been.
Sanders: Fighting Citizens United Since 2010
There is an independent congressional lawmaker who has been fighting Citizens United from the start. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) co-sponsored the DISCLOSE Act, the first legislative response to Citizens United. It would have required groups airing election ads to disclose where they got the money. President Barack Obama, whose campaign was fueled by big money donations and whose administration was as corporatist as any in modern history, nevertheless recognized the danger posed by Citizens United and supported the DISCLOSE Act. “Powerful special interests and their lobbyists should not be able to drown out the voices of the American people,” Obama said. “Passing the legislation is a critical step in restoring our government to its rightful owners: the American people.”
The DISCLOSE Act narrowly passed in the House of Representatives but has repeatedly failed to clear the Senate—even when it was controlled by Democrats. Undaunted, Sanders has tirelessly spoken—and acted—against Citizens United. At a March 2011 town hall event in his home state of Vermont, he blasted the Supreme Court for “unleashing a tsunami of corporate spending in politics” and “making a disastrous situation much, much worse.” He continued:
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For the first time in American history, corporations who are sitting on trillions of dollars… and making record profits can now… spend as much money as they want… for or against candidates. What does this mean in real life? Candidates, knowing that millions and millions of dollars can come flowing into their campaigns… when they come up to cast their vote in the Senate, what do you think is on [their] minds? If you are dealing with whether or not it is a good idea for the four largest financial institutions in the country to own more than half of the assets of our GDP, do you think you’re going to cast a vote to break [them] up, when you know that Wall Street can spend millions and millions of dollars… to defeat you? If you are sympathetic… to moving this country to Medicare for All… how willing to you think members of the Senate will be to vote to move in that direction when you know the power of the private insurance companies?
“[Americans] for hundreds of years have been fighting to say, ‘one person, one vote,’” he added. “Let’s have a democracy where money is not the key factor… as many people as possible should participate… Citizens United … essentially says that corporations and billionaires can… decide who will become president, senator or a governor. That is not what this country is about and that has got to be defeated.”
“A corporation is not a person,” Sanders concluded.
Fighting to the Top
Always walking his talk, Sanders has repeatedly attempted to advance constitutional amendments to overturn Citizens United and affirm that corporations do not have the same rights as human beings. His vehement opposition to the ruling took center stage during his first run for president in 2015-16, during which he eschewed the super PACs and big money donors upon which his corporate-backed rivals so heavily relied. And as early as May 2015 he said any of his potential Supreme Court nominees would have to pass a “litmus test” of being wiling to overturn the “disastrous” Citizens United ruling.
"No nominee of mine to the United States Supreme Court will get that job unless he or she is loud and clear that one of their first orders of business will be to overturn Citizens United,” Sanders told students at the University of Chicago in September 2015, citing the need to ban billionaires like the Koch brothers—who said they planned to spend nearly $900 million to boost conservative candidates and causes during the 2016 election cycle—from buying elections.
There is hope. At least 16 states and more than 600 municipalities have already passed measures in favor of a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. And with Sanders surging in poll after primary poll, there is the growing possibility that as president he will have a hand in shaping the Supreme Court’s future. As in 2016, opposing Citizens United is a cornerstone of his campaign. In October, he promised to reject all corporate donations to the 2020 Democratic National Convention if he wins the party’s nomination for president.
“You can’t take on a corrupt system if you take its money,” he said. Democratic National Committee (DNC) officials would not comment on Sanders’ pledge.