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Rules of the Game: Debate Over Corporate Spending Spans Parallel Universes

Roll Call

Are big corporations taking over American elections? It depends whether you ask liberals or conservatives, who can’t even agree on the basic facts.

In the liberal universe, big corporations have swallowed politics. Common Cause President Bob Edgar summed up this version of reality at a press conference in March, declaring: “We, the people, will not stand idly by while the country’s major corporations use their massive wealth to buy our democracy.”

In the parallel universe occupied by conservatives, leading corporations are actually playing no role at all in the elections, which are thriving post-Citizens United. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argued this case at the American Enterprise Institute last month, asserting that “not a single Fortune 100 company contributed a penny to the eight super PACs that supported the Republican primary candidates.”

To be sure, McConnell’s argument contains a grain of truth. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that deregulated political spending, it turns out that the big money is coming from individuals, not corporate treasuries.

A February analysis by a pair of progressive groups found that 17 percent (more than $30 million) of the money that super PACs raised post-Citizens United came from for-profit businesses. The largest share — 56 percent — came from wealthy individuals, according to the study by Demos and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which will be updated later this month.