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Don’t Blame Citizens United

Policy Desk Editor

Yuyan Pu ‘19

· Yuyan Pu

My summer was spent at a political fundraising and consulting firm in Philadelphia, a business with an interesting mix of financial bookkeeping, creative strategy, and political schmoozing. It is a future-proof career. “Fundraising the most secure job in politics,” my boss once told me. “Politicians can’t do anything if they don’t win their campaign.” Our clients are city councilmembers, political action committees (PACs), and independent expenditures, all requiring different fundraising methods so they do not cannibalize each other’s donor base. The donors included those who made small contributions of less than $200, but the real money came from Philadelphia’s wealthiest families who collectively invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into several city and statewide races. The Perelmans, the Zuritskys, the Buttenwiesers—just a few big names giving big money.

America’s very wealthy have been giving incredible amount of money into elections since the major change in campaign finance law as per the Citizens United v FEC decision. The case was first brought by Citizens United after the Federal Election Commission deemed the organization’s critical film of Hillary Clinton to be a political ad that violated the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). BCRA prohibited corporate and union expenditures on any broadcast, cable, or satellite communication that mentioned a candidate within thirty days of a primary or sixty days of a general election; Citizens United’s film Hillary: The Movie was offered video on-demand right before the 2008 Democratic primary. When the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Citizens United, it lifted the ban on independent expenditures by corporations and union. Corporations (a term inclusive of nonprofits) were granted freedom of speech with regard to political content—effectively being treated like an individual speaker in the eyes of the law. The decision made the political contributions theoretically more fair: a group of individuals can now pool together their money to match one wealthy individual’s single, large contribution.

Many Americans disagreed with the Supreme Court, however, as they view the decision as heightening the risk of corruption. The increased influence of money in elections makes it seem that the most expedient way for citizens to effect policy is by striking it rich. Others also find the identity of a corporation and the identity of a person capable of political speech to be separate. But corporate personhood is an uncontested legal notion; it is a rule created so the government is allowed to tax them.

Nevertheless, campaign finance reform and money in politics have been centerpiece in the 2016 elections. Donald Trump has repeatedly boasted his self-financed campaign to show that he is free from private interests. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have called for a constitutional amendment to regulate money in elections and have promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who agree to overturn the Citizens United decision. This kind of rhetoric has gone over well with their respective voter base, because to them, reversing the decision is a sure fix to money’s influence in elections. But making political contributions is an act of political activism that needs to be protected. To have the government decide what kind of political speech is allowed is a dangerous precedent to set. What set of conditions determined Hillary: The Movie was a political ad rather than a genuine film?

The main problem is that Citizens United protects free speech but does not guarantee equal speech. But the concern should not be that corporations can now make more political contributions than before. The focus should be on the high level of wealth inequality in America that allows for the top 0.1 percent—only 160,000 families—to own 22 percent of the nation’s wealth, roughly the same amount owned by the bottom 90 percent. Why focus on treating just the symptom when the entire socioeconomic system is sick? If low-income households are paid a real minimum wage of $18.42 that matched the value of their productivity growth since 1968, if the tax loopholes used by the wealthy are tightened so they can pay their intended share, if education was prioritized by state legislatures to allow for greater mobility—if all of these issues and more are addressed by both politicians and the public, then political speech can be made more equitable in American democracy.

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