Thank you for this opportunity to submit testimony regarding the damage that Citizens United and the rise of Super PACs has done to our system of democratic government. In the text below I will discuss why rules that govern the role of money in politics are important to our democracy; the impact of Citizens United and related decisions on our electoral system; and what Congress can and must do to promote the core American value of political equality.
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What’s at Stake
Before delving into the specific problems caused by the U.S. Supreme Court’s misinterpretation of the First Amendment and the current Super PAC system, it is useful to take a step back and highlight why campaign finance laws are important in the first place.
We live in a representative democracy with a capitalist economy. This means that we hold different values dear in the economic and political spheres.
Most Americans will tolerate some economic inequality so long as it results from meritocratic competition, because we respect that other values such as efficiency and proper incentives have a role to play in structuring our economy. One’s political ideology to a certain extent determines how much inequality one is willing to sanction in the name of other values—with, all else being equal, self-identified conservatives comfortable with a wider income gap than self-identified liberals or progressives. Few argue that everyone should receive the same income regardless of effort, talent, or other factors.
Political equality, on the other hand, is a core American value. Regardless of partisan or ideological affiliation, the vast majority of Americans agree that it is critical that we all come to the political table as equals. Through multiple amendments and Supreme Court decisions, the concept of political equality (“one person, one vote”) has become a core constitutional principle.
But, we cannot maintain a democracy of equal citizens in the face of significant economic inequality if we allow those who are successful (or lucky) in the economic sphere to translate wealth directly into political power. Our democratic public sphere is where we set the terms for economic competition. It is where we decide—as equals—how much inequality, redistribution, regulation, pollution we will tolerate. These choices gain legitimacy from the fact that we all had the opportunity to have our say. If incumbents are able to rig the rules in favor of their own success it undermines the legitimacy of the economic relations in society.
In short, democracy must write the rules for capitalism, not the other way around. And, the only way to ensure this happens is to have some mechanism for preventing wealthy individuals and institutions from translating their wealth into political power. Campaign finance rules are that mechanism. These common sense restrictions on the unfettered use of private wealth for public influence are the bulwarks or firewalls that enable us to maintain our democratic values and a capitalist economy simultaneously. When we remove these protections, we risk creating a society in which private wealth and public power are one and the same.