Other Opinion: Citizens United 10 years on


American politics is the most expensive game in the world. You have to pay to play.

Private interests with the means to pay are uniquely positioned to influence political outcomes. Politicians meanwhile must ingratiate themselves to a tiny fraction of the electorate who can fund their political careers.

That system was in play long before 2010; however, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case broke the corporate dam, and with it the trust of the American people.

Since the early 20th century, American courts consistently ruled that corporations were subject to restrictions during campaign seasons, and legislation prevented them from paying directly for political advertisements. The Roberts court deemed this unconstitutional on the grounds that banning such advertising is a violation of free speech rights.

Citizens United gave corporations the same privilege wealthy individuals won in the Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976: unlimited spending. For decades the affluent have been able to pay to see their ideology translated into public policy, and to block any reform seen as threatening to the status quo.


Democracy in America is responsive to deep pockets, and because unlimited spending on political advertisements is now protected by freedom of speech, the deepest pockets — whether in human or corporate form — can advertise us to death. Further, the system obliges members of Congress, and candidates for office, including presidents, to focus “less and less on raising money from all of us,” Harvard professor and author Lawrence Lessig said, “and more and more on raising money from just a few of us.”

Americans overwhelmingly support limits on political campaign spending, and strong majorities of both liberals and conservatives in the electorate believe that the Supreme Court has given corporations too much power. A Pew Research Center study released earlier this year revealed that 8 in 10 Americans believe that corporations and wealthy people have too much influence over policy decisions.

We’ve come to expect little from Congress even absent a global pandemic, but it is from Congress that these changes must come — if we want to stop relying on the courts to decide our political regulations. There is no fix — easy, quick or otherwise.

More than anything, the wildly unpopular Citizens United decision was an affirmation that money was driving the whole system. That is fundamentally undemocratic. We must start by admitting that.

©2020 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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