In the time since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, Americans across the nation have seen its devastating effects: Election spending by the wealthiest individuals and untraceable dark money groups has skyrocketed, faith in the institution of representative democracy is historically low, and legislative outcomes no longer represent the wishes of the majority of Americans, but rather serve the interests of the wealthy elite. But there is good news. In the wake of these disastrous outcomes, Americans across the political spectrum are uniting for a historic cross-partisan solution: An amendment to the Constitution to reaffirm the promise of equal political representation for every American, not just the wealthiest among us.
What the Court Got Wrong
The Supreme Court based its Citizens United ruling on the First Amendment right to free speech, maintaining that money is a type of political speech, and thus limits on political spending equate to limits on free speech. The ruling supercharged political spending. In 2000, approximately $1.6 billion was spent on Congressional elections. By 2018, the number had jumped to $5.7 billion. This spending has contributed to growing political polarization, a rise in crony capitalism, and the degradation of governmental responsiveness to the people.
In conflating money with speech, the Court undermined the principles it claimed it was upholding. Here are three key ways the Court got it wrong:
Money is the same as speech. Equating money to speech decreases equal representation by allowing those with more money to amplify their voices and drown out the voices of those with less money in elections and subsequently in day-to-day governing. In seeking to expand free “speech” rights by removing limitations on political spending, SCOTUS diminished the free speech rights of average American citizens in the political sphere. With less than 1 percent of Americans contributing most of the money in the U.S. political system, average Americans have little to no say in who successfully runs for office, who wins, and who ultimately represents them. The current system creates a political system so dependent on money that members of Congress prioritize securing it, with the average U.S. representative devoting 30 to 70 percent of her time to campaign fundraising. Incumbents and political party leaders are in the dominant position to demand money, punish those who don’t play, and reward those who can pay with favorable policy; most PAC funding goes to incumbents and 40 percent of state legislative races across the country are uncontested.
Corporations are entitled to First Amendment rights. The Citizens United decision argued that because corporations are simply associations of individuals, then corporations should have the same Constitutional rights as those people. But under the law corporations are more than just collections of individuals, as evidenced by the special privileges and rights they attain by incorporating—for example, the corporate legal structure makes a corporation liable for actions while shielding the actual humans behind the corporation and enables corporations to accumulate mass quantities of wealth. Legally and functionally, corporations are entities distinct from the individuals comprising them. Additionally, corporate interests are often contrary to the interests of the general public.
Unlimited political spending will not increase perception of corruption or harm Americans’ faith in democracy. In its Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court said that because political spending is different than quid pro quo corruption, it would not increase the perception of corruption in America. This has proven definitively false in practice. Today faith in our political system is at an all-time low. A recent poll shows that 61% of Americans aged 18-24 have a positive view of socialism, while only 17% of citizens trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time. About three-quarters of Americans from both parties believe big donors have more influence than others in the nation.
Our Cross-Partisan Solution
The good news is that the undeniable harm wrought by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling has united real citizens across the nation to come together for a systemic solution to pay-to-play politics. While opposition to unlimited political spending is often framed as a progressive or anti-business issue, in reality this issue crosses the political spectrum and unites Americans from every walk of life. In a 2018 poll, nearly 8 in 10 voters said reducing the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington was the most important or a very important factor in their 2018 vote, and ending political corruption (i.e. “draining the swamp”) was a key factor in Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential bid.
In recent political surveys, Americans across the political spectrum say there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and corporations can spend on campaigns, and that political corruption is the biggest crisis facing the nation. What’s more, 66% of Republican voters and 85% of Democratic voters back an amendment to reaffirm equal political representation for all Americans.
Constitutional amendments have historically been the vehicle for overturning wrong Supreme Court decisions—including the Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery and the Minor v. Happersett decision that barred women’s right to vote. An amendment creates the constitutional basis necessary to pass legislation limiting the influence of big money in elections and is a more permanent solution than can be offered by legislation alone.
While passing an amendment is a tall task (it must be approved by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of all the states), the amendment to end the domination of big money in politics has already made significant progress. In 2019, New Hampshire became the 20th state to formally call on Congress to pass such an amendment, crossing the halfway point to the 38 states needed to ratify. Alaska voters made their state the 21st on the list in 2020. And in early 2021, Virginia became the 22nd state supporting amendment efforts. Across the nation, more than 800 cities and towns have also passed resolutions in favor of such an amendment, and hundreds of thousands of citizens across the nation are united in working toward this solution.
How You Can Help Now
To pass this amendment, we need Americans across the country to get involved in the grassroots action taking place in their communities. Past amendments have been successful because broad coalitions of Americans have come together to demand change. Studies show that it takes just 3.5% of a population supporting a systemic change to make it happen. Here are four things you can do today to make progress on this issue.
- Contact your elected officials. Let your local, state and federal representatives know this is an issue that’s important to you. Next, ask candidates for elected office in your area to sign our American Promise Candidate Pledge. By signing the pledge, candidates commit to use their office, if elected, to advance the amendment to get big money out of politics. 13 2020 presidential candidates signed the pledge, including Republican Bill Weld and Democrats Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.
- Get involved locally. Find out what’s happening in your state. American Promise Associations across the nation are making huge strides in passing local and state resolutions and building the awareness in their communities that will lead to success.
- If you’re a businessperson, learn more about the American Promise National Business Network, and how business leaders across America are standing up against pay-to-play politics.
- If you’re a young American, sign the Cause of Our Time Statement of Principle, committing to fight big money in politics, and share it with your friends and family. Big money political spending exacerbates issues that especially affect young Americans, like rising college costs and the climate crisis.
Citizen leaders across America are stepping up to reverse the damage done in the time since the Citizens United ruling and advocating for an amendment to establish a system of equal political representation for all, not just the wealthy few. Join us today.