Celebrate the Citizens United Decade

The ruling has empowered small-dollar donors and political outsiders, not corporations.

‘Last week,” President Obama declared a decade ago, “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections.”

Mr. Obama was wrong in almost every respect about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which the court decided on Jan. 21, 2010. Hysterical predictions about Citizens United—then-Rep. Ed Markey, among others, compared it to Dred Scott—haven’t held up.

Contrary to Mr. Obama’s assertion about a century of law, Citizens United overturned portions of McCain-Feingold, a campaign-finance law that wasn’t even 10 years old, and another law from 1947. Those laws prohibited unions and corporations, including nonprofits, from voicing support for or opposition to candidates for federal office.

Citizens United didn’t affect the longstanding ban on corporate contributions to candidates, and it didn’t legalize foreign political spending in the U.S. Most Russian online ads in 2016 would have been protected under the First Amendment even before Citizens United, because the ads didn’t urge a vote for or against a candidate.

Far from handing power to the 1%, Citizens United unleashed rapid political diversification. Since the ruling, the White House or Congress has changed parties in every federal election except 2012. Twenty eighteen saw the highest midterm voter turnout in a century. Small-dollar donors are more coveted than ever. Donald Trump raised more money from donors who gave less than $200 than any candidate in history.

Since Citizens United, party outsiders such as Mr. Trump and Bernie Sanders have risen to national prominence. And money hasn’t been able to buy elections as predicted. Sheldon Adelson donated record amounts to Republican super PACs in 2012 but failed to prevent strong Democratic victories. Democrats Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg came up empty after putting huge sums of money behind climate change and gun control.

Hillary Clinton outspent Mr. Trump 3 to 1 in 2016. Congressional leaders and big-time fundraisers such as Reps. Eric Cantor (R., Va.) and Joe Crowley (D., N.Y.) lost their seats to primary challengers who spent a fraction of what the incumbents did. Incumbent re-election rates in the House never dipped below 94% from 1996 to 2008, but did in 2010, 2012 and 2018.

Citizens United deserves a share of credit for all these trends. The decision made it easier to promote (or criticize) a candidate without help from party leaders or media elites.

Perhaps the worst prediction was that Citizens United would allow a corporate takeover of democracy. The New York Times accused the justices of having “paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections” and “thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century.”

A decade later, most spending comes from the same place it always has: individuals who donate directly to candidates, up to legally limited amounts. Corporations contribute well under 10% of federal political spending, Their voice is not dominant—and voters have a right to hear it. Justice Anthony Kennedy and his colleagues didn’t hold that “money is speech” or “corporations are people.” The ruling was part of a healthy shift in favor of free speech in politics—a trend that began with 2007’s Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC, and continued through 2014’s McCutcheon v. FEC.

The questions is whether the justices think their work is done. If they truly want to empower democracy, they should continue to look skeptically at regulation of campaign finance. Political speech, after all, is at the core of the First Amendment’s protection.

Mr. Smith served as chairman of the Federal Election Commission, 2001-05, and is chairman of the Institute for Free Speech.

Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 3: What is Oligarchy?

What does oligarchy mean? In the third episode of “Timothy Snyder Speaks,” historian and author Timothy Snyder explores the meaning of oligarchy, where it came from, how it endangers us — and how it connects the United States and Russia.

Celsius 41.11: Citizens United Documentary

Manohla Dargis of The New York Times compared Celsius 41.11 unfavorably to FahrenHYPE 9/11, another documentary film aimed at rebutting the arguments made by Michael Moore. While Dargis felt that the purpose of FahrenHYPE 9/11 was the detailed rebutting of the arguments put forward by Moore’s film, she felt that the purpose of Celsius 41.11 was to “make you afraid — very, very afraid”. She stated that Celsius 41.11 “presents a vision of the world verging on the apocalyptic“. Dargis concluded “finally [the film is] interesting only because it represents another unconvincing effort on the part of conservatives to mount a viable critique of Mr. Moore.”[6]

Criticisms of the production[edit]

The Boston Globe and the New York Times both questioned the reliability of some of the individuals interviewed. The Globe called the experts “occasionally dubious” saying that they “offer[ed] drive-by disses and plain untruths“.[21] Manohla Dargis of the New York Timeswas particularly critical of the film for not detailing the extent of Mansoor Ijaz‘s investments in the Middle East or “just how intimately familiar he was with the nonsense of the Clinton White House”.[6] Both publications, however, spoke well of the contributions of Fred Thompson with the New York Times calling him “thoughtful”[6] and the Globe adding that “with his level head and reflective words, [he] makes partisanship seem dignified.”[21]

Several critics felt that insufficient time had been spent on the film. Maitland McDonagh of TV Guide said that it “bears all the hallmarks of having been thrown together in a heated rush”,[22] a criticism echoed by Robert Koehler of Variety who called the editing “choppy”.[7]Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe described the film as “a seemingly last-minute series of talking heads and montages”.[21] A number of critics compared the style of the film to that of a PowerPoint presentation.[6][8][21][23]

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