In 2010, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on the Federal Elections Commission v. Citizens United, a case that will have drastic effects on our political system. Large corporations and labor unions will now have unprecedented influence over America’s national, state, and local elections. If Congress does not overturn the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United then, as a result, the decision has the potential to lead to political corruption, the increase of voter apathy, and the drowning out of third party ideas. Soon our country’s political system will no longer work for the good of its citizens, but rather be beholden to whomever has the most money to contribute.
The Supreme Court decision on the Citizens United case is one of the most devastating court decisions in our country’s history, but many people know little to nothing about the landmark case. Citizens United is a conservative non-profit organization, and in 2008 they attempted to violate federal campaign laws by distributing a documentary critical of Sen. Hillary Clinton. The law Citizens Untied violated was the part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that prohibits, “Broadcast advertisements mentioning a candidate within 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election” (par. 19). As a result, the Federal Election Commission blocked the film and Citizens United sued on the grounds that it violated their first amendment right to free speech; however, Citizens United lost the case in Federal Court, but they appealed and the case went before the Supreme Court.
The question proposed before the court was whether Citizens United should have been allowed to show the Clinton documentary. According to Adam Liptak, a political columnist for The New York Times, “Instead, the court addressed the questions it proposed to the parties in June when it set down the case for an unusual second argument in September, those of whether Austin and McConnell should be overruled” (par. 26). The court ruled 5-4 that Citizens United had the right to show the Clinton film, but in the process they also overturned Austin and McConnell, two cases that had previously banned corporate and union contributions to political campaigns
. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, “By definition, an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not coordinated with a candidate” (par. 17). Justice Kennedy’s opinion equates money to free speech as long as the money is not directly given to a candidate’s campaign. Justice Kennedy went on to state that, “Political speech is indispensable to decision making in a democracy, and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation rather than an individual” (par. 20). Justice Kennedy believes that corporations are entitled to the same rights as human beings. The Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United has now enabled corporations and unions to pour exorbitant amounts of money into America’s electoral landscape.
First, endless negative campaign advertisements bombarded Americans for nearly two years before the presidential election, and a vast amount were paid for by Super PACs. These immense political action committees are a direct byproduct of the Citizens United decision, and are funded by corporations, wealthy individuals, and labor unions. There are no laws limiting how much one can donate to these Super PACs, and they are allowed to spend millions of dollars towards the victory or defeat of a candidate. As long as Super PACs do not directly contribute to a candidate’s campaign, they are allowed to spend as much money as they please. Most of the advertisements sponsored by Super PACs mirror the views of the candidate they support. One realizes that Super PACs cannot contribute fiscally to a candidate; however, that candidate directly benefits from the millions of dollars spent on political ads by a Super PAC.
Second, with the seemingly endless amounts of money Super PACs can raise, they possess a vast amount of political influence. Super PACs have the potential to cause political corruption on a level not seen since the Water Gate Scandal during the Nixon administration. For example, Super PACs can use their political war chests to defeat nearly any candidate that does not support their agenda by flooding every media source with scathing attack ads. As a result, politicians will feel compelled to vote in favor of the bills that would benefit the donors of a Super PAC. Politicians will be extremely reluctant to go up against a Super PAC that has an almost endless supply of money that could be used to support a challenger. It may only be a prediction for the future, but many Americans already believe Super PACs will cause corruption. For example, a survey of 1,015 adults conducted by the Brennan Center For Justice discovered, “69% of respondents agreed that new rules that let corporations, unions and people give unlimited money to Super PACs will lead to corruption” (par. 7).
The American public is noticing the effects of the Super PACs and they foresee a bleak political future. Third, voter apathy is on the rise and Super PACs are the main contributor; for example, a survey of 1,015 adults by the Brennan Center For Justice found, “One in four Americans — 26% — say that they are less likely to vote because big donors to Super PACs have so much more influence over elected officials than average Americans” (par. 14). The Brennan Centers survey shows that a significant amount of Americans believe that their vote is worthless. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the minority opinion for FEC v. Citizens United, “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituents believe laws are being bought and sold” (qtd. in Dionne, par. 7). Justice Stevens believes the unlimited amount of money labor unions, the wealthy, and corporations can spend on political campaigns in order to meet their own agendas will cause Americans to lose trust in their government, and when our government loses the trust of its citizens our democracy will dissolve only to be replaced by an authoritarian state.
Fourth, Citizens United will officially end the third party system, but the most tragic will be the end of third party ideas. Some of the most important legislation in our country’s history started out as third party ideas. For example, abolition of slavery, child labor laws, workers compensation, direct election of Senators, global warming, and women’s suffrage were once the basis of the third party political platform. Super PACs have the resources to pay exorbitant amounts to spread their messages through advertisements, but third parties do not possess the resources to fiscally compete with them. Super PACs have the fiscal ability to monopolize every media source in order to drown any ideas that do not coincide with their own. The first amendment protects the right to communicate one’s opinion and ideas, but the Supreme Court has stripped that right away from our third party system.
It is abundantly clear that the Citizens United decision has unleashed a scourge on the American political landscape in the form of Super PACs. As a result, our federal representatives must pass a constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United decision, and pass new campaign finance legislation requiring campaigns to only be funded by the government. The benefit of having campaigns paid for by the government is every candidate will get the same amount of money, and politicians will no longer have to feel beholden to wealthy donors and corporate interests, but rather work for the good of their constituents. In conclusion, our country has been through many crises and it has always overcame them. One has to believe that our government will make the right decision and overturn the Citizens United decision, thus restoring our trust in government by taking the power away from the labor unions, millionaires, and corporations, and putting the power back where it rightfully belongs with the American people.
Courtney from Study Moose
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