The Supreme Court’s Billion-Dollar Mistake

January 22, 2015 | | The New York Review of Books |

Five years ago this week, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court decided to allow unlimited amounts of corporate spending in political campaigns. How important was that decision? At the time, some said criticism of the decision was overblown, and that fears that it would give outsize influence to powerful interests were unfounded. Now, the evidence is in, and the results are devastating. [...]

The domination of electoral politics by the super-wealthy and the growing irrelevance of campaign spending limits have real-world consequences, because, as F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, the “very rich … are different from you and me.” A recent report by Demos chronicles how big money reinforces racial inequity. The rich are of course disproportionately white, and the poor are disproportionately black and Latino. The more influence that money has in electoral politics, the less influence racial minorities have. Common Cause’s report has similar findings, noting how large financial contributions have skewed the politics around several issues favored by a majority of voters, but not by big business and the wealthy, including minimum wage, climate change, and student loans.

These developments, it should be said, are not consequences of Citizens United alone. The problems with the Court’s campaign finance jurisprudence predated that decision. But in Citizens United, the Court reversed earlier precedent that had acknowledged a legitimate government interest in limiting the outsized influence of large sums of money on the electoral process. And this interest had been held to be legitimate even when the money in question did not present a direct risk of bribery or quid pro quo corruption.