Making Lemonade from the Citizens United Ruling
By Bill Vandenberg
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on the Citizens United case—opening the floodgates for more corporate cash to stream into our democracy and elections—is a disaster that will lead to many more election cycles of politics dominated by the highest bidder while low- and moderate-income people and their interests are left further behind.
Still, we can’t exactly say that this is a new phenomenon. Except for those rare places—Arizona, Maine, and a few other spots across the nation with clean money (i.e. publicly financed) elections—big business interests already dominate politics and disproportionately influence our elected leaders. Case in point: the political timidity from the White House and Congress this year in really taking on the banking industry as it worked to block new financial regulations. Some politicians, the president included, have begun to take up populist language about the banking industry’s power but it now rings a bit hollow and politically motivated and is more than a day late and a dollar short.
Politicians of both political stripes wouldn’t be so meek if most hadn’t received significant support, directly and indirectly, from the banking and financial industries. Taking on climate change, trying to advance health care reform, the list goes on and on. Corporate interests are dominant in U.S. politics already.
This will, without a doubt, unleash untold millions more into the political (consultant) industrial complex, bring more cringeworthy attack ads to TV viewers everywhere, and likely lead to election cycles marked by mammoth contributions from corporate interests seeking to evade responsibility and regulation. To make lemonade from these lemons, it could also become a call to arms for all who feel that big business dominance of U.S. democracy must stop. Here’s how:
- Reignite the national movement for clean money—publicly financed—elections. Sure, it’s a tough time for local, state, and federal budgets to prioritize this but there are inventive and effective financing mechanisms already in place that could become models for city, county, state, judicial, and federal clean elections.
- It’s time for a reinvigorated corporate accountability movement that can use the Citizens United ruling as a call to action. If the Supremes say that corporate money can flood our democracy, who’s to say that we can’t force it into the open with enhanced disclosure requirements, greater transparency, consumer boycotts of corporations seen to be buying elections for their private interests, and increased shareholder activity?
- Americans have long used the Constitutional amendment process to defend democracy and right wrongs. Initial conversations are already occurring among organizations and business leaders about whether corporations should have the same rights under the First Amendment as people do.
Bill Vandenberg is division director for Learning and Impact for Open Society-U.S. at the Open Society Foundations.