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Citizens United: Time for Outrage

The internet is filled with calls for outrage, and I hesitate to add one more. But the outrage over the Supreme Court'sCitizens United decision has been slowly simmering for months, and it's time for it to boil over. The cauldronhit a rolling boil when Newt Gingrich'scampaign wasfunded almost entirely by one person "not coordinating" with the campaign.For some in our country, the cauldron's lid could barely contain our outrage when Stephen Colbert revealed the farcical workingsof super PACs during an extended prophetic satire.[caption id="attachment_19877" align="alignright" width="300" caption=""Houston, we are the .0000063%""]"Houston, we are the .0000063%"[/caption]But the real boil-over has got to be coming soon. The reason?Solid statisticsfor campaign contributions have been rolling infor this presidential election, and they are beyond what most of us could have imagined.As Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig has been demonstrating, thenumber of "citizens united" that combined to contribute 80% of these political contributions is statistically infinitesimal: 196 people, or .0000063% of American citizens. In other words, the primary vehicle of contemporary American campaigning is funded by about the same number of people that have been to the international space station.Former senator Russ Feingold recently offered a round-up of criticism of Citizens United in the Stanford Law Review, where he noted that, finally:

The public is noticing. A recent poll conducted jointly between the Washington Post and ABC News found a staggering reality: nearly seven in ten registered voters believe that super PACs, the prominent vehicle used to channel unlimited funds into our elections, should be illegal.

Yet Feingold's piece was written just before the Supreme Court's June decision to reject Montana's challenge to Citizens United. It seems then, that the power to overturn this fundamental threat to democracy -- yes, that's classic outrage language! -- lies only with the people and our legislative branch.Amid our outrage, Justice Stevens's dissent is worth rehearsing over and over.A frequently quoted portion:

At bottom, the court's opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.

Amen! Let's rally the 99.9999937% !!!

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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The chance of overtruning CU are about as possible as the return of the Ice Age to Tempe, AZ.Both parties benefit, just at different times. It is the reverse monetary version of the Senate fillibuster.

The Citizens United case did not decide anything about PACs (which existed prior to the decision as a vehicle for union and industry trade groups to influence legislation) or contributions to political candidates, which is what Prof. Lessig's article is about. Citizens United dealt with the ban on independent expenditures (in the form of advertising, leafletting, etc.) by corporations (non-profits and unions too) within 30 days of an election. It rightlfully found that such a measure was a congressional prohibition on speech in violation of the First Amendment that was meant to protect incumbents from criticism. Since commonweal seems to like the ban on corporate expenditures, will it prohibit it contributors from mentioning candidates by name on this blog or in its magazine published within 30 days of the election?

Thank God for citizen's united. Government regulating political speech and campaigns is a complete conflict-of-interest.

Bruce and Mikey like CU..Let's find the weakest company one of these 198 own and by boycott get the 99% to put it out of business.A casino is very vulnerable business.. maybe not in Macao though.. .That will be just step one. the only message they hear is money.

ed,I actually agree with you (shocking as that may be). The answer to speech you don't like (whether it be from corporations or politicians or even commonweal commenters) is more speech, in the form of protests or boycotts or press conferences or response ads. Why do we need the government to place limits on political speech based on the legal status of the source?

All the lovers of plutocracy and its use to manipulate fob themselves off as lovers of free speexh.I think Jim is right that no change is imminent, but,please, don't b.s. me about the wonders of free speech.

It's true that Citizens United itself didn't create PACs, but it created the legal precedent for the decision (July 2010) and thus super PACs. It explicitly cited Citizens United as the main reason for its ruling. With super PACs we're talking about differences in degree that are sufficient to be different in kind. If active PACs were like the rapids of the Colorado River, the super PACs are like a flood after a heavy rain or after eliminating one of the dams. (Indeed, a "flood" of money has been a popular metaphor for what's happened in campaign finance post-2010.) Super PACs are different enough in degree to be different in kind. What's happening is not like anything that's happened before. Spend any time watching TV in a swing state, or follow the super PAC spending on any number of tracking sites, and it's easy to see what's changed. As long as we're trading in the key metaphors here, the other ones are "money = speech" and "corporation or union = person." The super PACs amplify the rights to free speech for some, to be sure. But what's happening in practice is that super PACs have been given unlimited access to, if you will, amplified speech that drowns out the speech of others. In a democratic town hall meeting, if the richest person in the town bought the rights to the auditorium's amplification system and delivered a political message at high volume for the entirety of the meeting, while everyone else clambered to be heard underneath the din, we wouldn't call that a net increase in free speech rights. Federal elections are our nation's town hall meeting. We want liberty, but we want it ordered -- isn't "ordered liberty" the favorite rejoinder of conservatives to libertarians? On this issue I feel very conservative, in the old-fashioned sense (Burke and Kirk).

corporation or union = personMichael, why keep pedaling this falsehood. The rationale is that unions and corporations are 'associations of people' and the freedom to 'assemble' is in the bill of rights. It has nothing to do with a corporation or union being a natural person.Further, individual voters can choose whether and to whom to listen. Why do we need the government to restrict our access in what is a clear conflict of interest.

"Further, individual voters can choose whether and to whom to listen."You make a HUGE presumption about the masses of the general electorate being intelligent enough to know the difference between a squash racquet and a pomegranate. They'll just listen to the heavily funded loudest braying at the very end and vote for the one they'dlike to have a beer - or, in Romney's case - a Perrier with.

Corporate personhood has been around a long time. I wasn't peddling a falsehood. I understand what the legal language is: corporations are "person"s but not "individual"s in US law. On the contrary, Guantanamo detainees are "individual"s but not "person"s in US law (Rasul v. Rumsfeld, appeal decision, 2009). I'm just drawing attention to the operative metaphors, which are crucial to the way we talk, think, and reason. It's easy to rally people around the cause of the rights of people to unlimited free speech regarding politics and elections. It's significantly more difficult to rally people around the cause of the rights of corporations to spend unlimited money regarding politics and elections. I think when people see what's happening in an almost unregulated political campaign situation (196 individuals responsible for 80% of the contributions), Americans will question the wisdom of such a system.

Michael ==About political language --- One of the problems here is that political advertising uses the same sorts of psychological pressures involving language and images to manipulate judgements that business ads do. Both brainwash their audiences without the audiences being aware that the brainwashing is going on, unless the audience is educated enough to watch out for it.

If they are not using the money to literally buy votes, what exactly is the problem?

As you say Mark, they have the money, so they win. Market driven. Any politician knows that money buys votes. It may not technically be bribery. But it does buy votes. No one becomes a congressman or senator, let alone president without huge amounts of money.

Corporate personhood has been around a long time. I wasnt peddling a falsehood.Michael,Citizens United was not based on corporations and unions being natural persons. In that sense, you were mis-Leading the discussion. While corporations are legal persons they do not have any rights under the constitution, those belong to natural persons and associations of natural persons.Btw, I highly doubt anyone commenting here is unduly influenced by the 'brainwashing'. So who exactly are you worried about? Those who cant think for themselves? What if they can?

I just leafed through the Constitution and discovered that, instead of the nice, clean method by which the guy who raises the most money wins, we've constructed this cockamamie process whereby you vote for a delegate to an electoral college, which in turn chooses the president.I am not sure why the specter of corporate spending is being waved around like a bloody shirt. I understand that the 80% is coming not primarily from corporations but from wealthy individuals.As I've stated before, I'd much rather see the money go directly to the campaigns rather than to super PACs, so that the candidates can be held responsible for the messaging being put out on their behalf. The sheer quantity of expenditures on advertising doesn't bother me too much. It seems that there is a rough equality between the two sides in this election. It's difficult to see that either candidate is getting much of an edge so far; the polls have barely budged in two months or more. In point of fact, the *in*effectiveness of the media blitzes, particularly by the Obama campaign, has itself become a story during these relative doldrums in the campaign. There is such a thing as a law of diminishing returns on messaging. I know that if I lived in Ohio, I'd switch to the ball game during commercial breaks.

should be illegal

"Should be" is an opinion. "Are not" is a fact. Rally away.

A couple of examples where the question of campaign contributions corrupting our politics comes into play:1 - When large donors want a specific outcome. The Romney campaign ( has been using Solyndra as an example of "crony capitalism", pointing to the fact that Solyndra's largest investor, George Kaiser, was a "bundler" for the Obama '08 presidential campaign.2 - Based on this story (, it seems to me that if I were Sheldon Adelson, I'd have a fairly strong self-interest in trying to ensure that the US Justice Dept. wouldn't pursue an indictment of me in 2013.3 - Political scientists tend to agree that there's a point of "diminishing returns" for campaign advertising. In presidential races, that point is pretty much always reached, or at least approached. Also, in presidential races (or gubernatorial races on a state level) there tends to be widespread third-party coverage (i.e., reporting) of the campaign.That's not true for lower-level races. (Quick who are the candidates in California's 37th district? Or Texas 18th? Or New York's 25th? Or Kansas' 3rd?) Many of the political scientists who express concern about the long-term impact of "Citizens United" argue that its greatest impact will be in state legislative and judicial races---campaigns in which there's little or no media coverage other than advertising.

It is not a "conflict of interest:" for a democratic state to act to preserve its democratic principles. If someone were to invade us with guns and bombs, no one would say it's a conflict of interest for the government to act to prevent this. I think it's not only appropriate, but obligatory, that our government legislate against anything that might undermine our democracy.The governor of Montana's op-ed last month in the NY Times about the corrupting influence of Citizens United was pretty compelling. support the movement for a constitutional amendment against Citizens United.

"The Romney campaign ... has been using Solyndra as an example of crony capitalism, pointing to the fact that Solyndras largest investor, George Kaiser, was a bundler for the Obama 08 presidential campaign."Please correct me if I'm confusing myself on this one, but I think the practice of bundling did not originate with the Citizens United decision per se, but rather is a function of campaign contribution limits imposed by (I think) the original Federal Election Campaign Act. FWIW, here is my take on bundling:The current limit for an individual contributing to a presidential campaign is $2,500. Let's say, for the sake of discussion, that each campaign in 2008 spent $500 million on its general-election campaign (in point of fact, the Obama campaign spent considerably more and the McCain campaign spent considerably less, but $500 million is, very roughly, the average of the two, and it makes the math easier). That means that if the three of us - you, me, and Sheldon Adelson - each maxed out on our contributions to our favorite candidates' campaigns, each of us would contribute one two-thousandth of one percent of the total amount that the campaign needs in order to sustain itself. I submit that there isn't enough time to attend all the Hollywood cocktail parties or union hall beerfests or envelope-slipping in dark alleys between now and the election to directly solicit and collect the money that campaigns need, if it needs to be solicited and collected in $2,500 chunks. The chasm of a mismatch between the limits on contributions, and the cost of sustaining a campaign, is so yawningly wide, that bundling has become a necessity. Without bundlers, we'd only be able to have an election once every couple of hundred years or so, because that's how long it would take to raise all the money under our current laws.The obvious solution is to raise the limits. Then, rich guys could donate more without needing bundlers. Of course, that raises the specter of rich guys exercising outsize influence on candidates, and I don't say that's not a valid concern. But with the system in place now, we have the specter of bundlers exercizing outsize influence on candidates. So it may be a wash. If I were a rich guy, I'd be more likely to trust an operative presumably vetted by the campaign than a bundler, just like, if I were the dad of a star high school basketball player, I'd be more likely to trust the assistant coach of Land Grant U than some shady AAU coach who claims to have a connection to the Land Grant U program.

@Jim Pauwels (7/17, 9:12 am) You're right; bundling's been around (and legal) for years.This is somewhat off-topic, but one possible piece of the solution to the campaign finance problem would be to reduce the "expense" side of the equation by making a certain amount of advertising (TV, radio, print, internet?) time and/or space available to candidates at no or reduced cost. As it stands now, one of the prime beneficiaries of our unwieldy campaign system is television station owners.

"Without bundlers, wed only be able to have an election once every couple of hundred years or so, because thats how long it would take to raise all the money under our current laws."My personal political donations have all been done online in response to e-mail solicitations. I think we now have the communications technology to raise necessary campaign funds without bundling. I think needing to get support from many, many donors is not a bad threshold requirement for a political campaign, it culls from the herd those people whose message has little popular support and who are only in play because they have deep pockets.

"I think needing to get support from many, many donors is not a bad threshold requirement for a political campaign, it culls from the herd those people whose message has little popular support and who are only in play because they have deep pockets."Irene, we do that already, but the support is given in the form of votes rather than donations. What you've written is actually a pretty good justification for the party primary.I agree that it's pretty easy to give money, including to political campaigns, online. But I presume that bundlers aren't only bundling - they're selling, too. If everyone was persuaded and motivated enough to give without needing a sales pitch, then bundlers would be unnecessary.

People who want to support the DISCLOSE Act can do so pretty easily through the Open Congress website.

Irene --Thanks very much for that site. It does all the work for you :-)

The Republicans in the Senate filibustered DISCLOSE for the second straight day yesterday.

Yet another reason to eliminate (or severely weaken) the Senate rules that allow for filibusters.

It is not a conflict of interest: for a democratic state to act to preserve its democratic principles.Irene,This statement includes a fundamental misunderstanding of our Republic which was establish by 'We the People', and "it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government. The state acting to preserve its 'democratic principles' is exactly a 'conflict of interest', since We the People retain the right and obligation to determine the 'democratic principles' of 'such Government'.

I disagree, Bruce. By legislating to control undue influence over our electoral process, it is We The People acting through our democratically elected representatives to ensure we remain We The People and not a tyranny of the powerful few.

When some people are allowed to contribute more than the personal limit ($2500?), then that person has double the privilege of the rest of us. It also violates the principle of "one man, one vote". Further, it's like voting behind a mask. The whole decision is a sham. I wonder if Roberts' conscience has been hurting him since Citizensl, so he summoned up enough courage to do right by Obamacare.

Surprised no one's pointed to this article yet:"The oft-repeated narrative of 2012 goes like this: Citizens United unleashed a torrent of money from businesses and the multimillionaires who run them, and as a result we are now seeing the corporate takeover of American politics."As a matter of political strategy, this is a useful story to tell, appealing to liberals and independent voters who arent necessarily enthusiastic about the administration but who are concerned about societal inequality, which is why President Obama has made it a rallying cry almost from the moment the Citizens United ruling was made. But if youre trying to understand whats really going on with politics and money, the accepted narrative around Citizens United is, at best, overly simplistic. And in some respects, its just plain wrong."Some more analysis from the Economist:

I think we must begin to reform campaign financing by demanding that every gift must disclose the donor's name. What is most troubling is anonymous campaign money, which opens the door to a foreign entity, hostile to U.S. interests, corrupting the political process. I am less bothered by the likes of Sheldon Adelson spending millions openly in support of a campaign or candidate.

George S. --Indeed, it's the anonymity that's worrisome. Who knows who is buying influence in Congress -- why not the Mafia? Why not foreign countries? And even why not the drug dealers? The NRA already gets what it wants. (When ARE we going to ban assault rifles??) Human nature does allow it. Just look at Mexico. Government by privileged interest groups plagued the Latin American governments for generations. It's now plaguing ours. We're on our way to being a banana republic ourselves, with the financial industry as the banana plantation owners.

Each person in "an association of people" has an individual vote which they are free to use or not use. To make the company with its big $$$ and influence, another (super) person is to afford those individuals more than one vote.

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