Turns Out Citizens United Only Changed the Volume

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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26 Responses

  1. Michael Drew says:

    That’s a hell of a gig. Congrats!

    I agree on Citizens United. As one who was concerned and remains wary, this has to be taken as evidence, not slam-dunk evidence, but strong evidence that the concern was over less in the event than seemed to be implicated by the decision. (This was already somewhat clear from the way rich individuals, we think, dominated independent spending, though that’s still somewhat pending the full disclosure data.)

    At the same time, while the results obviously don’t show that corporation just went ahead and bought the election for Republican (not sure why that would have perceived that as necessarily in their interest in any case…) it’s not at all clear, again because full disclosure is still pending, that corporate money and the threat of it didn’t still have a powerful effect on what the election ended up being functionally about (as measured by what issues the bulk of political advertising emphasized), and thus what the governing agenda regardless of party control will look like over the term.

    The data on the political effects of Citizens United, and broader deregulation of campaign finance is not fully in yet, not by a long shot. Of course, to those who support the logic of the decision (if not its jurisprudence entirely, or where it chose to break off applying that logic), those effects are largely beside the point. If the principle is right, then it is right. This is not to say that people shouldn’t care about the effects. But the logic of the decision doesn’t allow for adherents to that logic to let the effects lead them to reconsider the decision. You have to either think the logic is flawed or to say outright that you think that the potential effects mean that even if there is merit to the logic, the effects outweigh it.

    Whoa, tangent. Overcaffeinated. That’s awesome about MoJo.Report

    • Erik Kain in reply to Michael Drew says:

      Thanks! I’m undercaffeinated myself, so…Report

    • Scott Fields in reply to Michael Drew says:

      …it’s not at all clear, again because full disclosure is still pending, that corporate money and the threat of it didn’t still have a powerful effect on what the election ended up being functionally about (as measured by what issues the bulk of political advertising emphasized), and thus what the governing agenda regardless of party control will look like over the term.

      This. A hundred times this.

      That Sheldon Adelson couldn’t buy any of his candidates into office is besides the point. The possibility that a rich few can spend overwhelming amounts of money and just buy the Presidency or control of Congress has never been the true threat of Citizens United. I just don’t agree with Tod that the billions the well-off Republicans paid into Super Pacs bought them nothing. It bought them the parameters of the entire election conversation. I don’t think the reason there was so little debate on civil liberties during this election was because too few people care about them. It’s due to the fact that civil libertarians don’t have a sugar daddy. Does anyone doubt Gary Johnson would have done better than 1% if Adelson had backed him?

      And it’s not just about well-off Republicans. Michael’s got it right here when he contends this impacts the governing agenda regardless of which party is in control. The money people are smart enough to buy into both sides of the aisle. Favors are now owed by those who were elected.Report

  2. Ethan Gach says:

    My concern wouldn’t be financial partiy between Dems and Republicans, but parity between the established parties and any challengers.

    It just makes it that much harder to run a third party or independent insurgency campaign when that much more time on the airwaves is bought out, and there’s that much more messaging drowning out talk of any other candidate or issue.

    But transpareny yes, I’m more and more convinced that transparency rarely ever makes things worse.Report

    • Ramblin' Rod in reply to Ethan Gach says:

      The Greens are screwed but righty-leaning thirds/independents could do well. Remember Ross Perot?Report

    • Erik Kain in reply to Ethan Gach says:

      I don’t think Citizens United actually makes it harder for third parties; it was already nightmarishly difficult for them to begin with. Public finance wouldn’t fix the problem either, as it almost certainly would be structured in a way that favors established parties over everyone else.Report

      • Ethan Gach in reply to Erik Kain says:

        “it was already nightmarishly difficult for them to begin with.”

        I’m imagining someone who was once trying to speak up while the volume was at five, and as the money increases, now having to speak up as the volume gets pushed up to eleven.Report

  3. Ramblin' Rod says:

    Yes, this. And AFAIK transparency laws shouldn’t have any constitutional problems.

    But I do worry about the down-ticket, state and lower-level races. Could we see a situation where the Republicans more or less permanently hold state-houses and the Federal House while the Presidency, Senate, and Governorships are more fluid?Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Ramblin' Rod says:

      AFAIK transparency laws shouldn’t have any constitutional problems

      Do we have a constitutional right to anonymous speech? I don’t know, but I’m a little leery of a “no” answer.Report

      • I can make a pretty good argument that the individual/corporate distinction matters with regards to transparency laws in a way that it does not (and, IMHO, should not) with regards to speech more generally.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Mark Thompson says:

          I’d probably buy that argument. I’m not too concerned if we know where Koch Brothers’ Industries (or whatever they’re called) puts their money, but I am concerned if the Restore American Now! PAC has to reveal that Charles Koch gave them money.Report

  4. Tim Kowal says:

    The hysteria also bought passage of Obamacare through SCOTUS, if Larry Tribe is to believed.Report

  5. Snarky McSnarksnark says:

    Congratulations, Erik!

    Now I can read two of my favorite bloggers at the same place: you and Kevin Drum .Report

  6. MBunge says:

    I’d say this was strong evidence that Citizens United doesn’t change the game for the Senate and the Presidency. I’m not sure about the House and I think we need a lot more information about the impact on races for state legislatures.

    I would contend we we probably also need to see what affect CU has against a Democrat without the political and fundraising awesomeness of Barack Obama.


  7. Damon says:

    I’ve always been an advocate of transparency, for the reasons you’ve mentioned Erik. If this cause, candidate, whatever, is so important for you to put your money where your mouth is, then surly you have no reason NOT to disclose.

    Given that the ostensible reason for a bill, position, etc. often is different from the true reason, “following the money” provides a good clue as to what the true motives are. That’s why transparency is resisted.Report

  8. Dan Miller says:

    I’ve got nothing against transparency–the more the better. But what makes you think it’s so valuable? I can’t think of a single instance where transparency in funding has seriously ameliorated the problems caused by the ever-increasing domination of our elections by the rich. Michael Drew is right that we can’t just look at a Romney loss and stop worrying about Citizens United. I think public financing is a better area for the campaign finance reform movement to focus on.Report

    • Scott Fields in reply to Dan Miller says:

      I agree with Dan. More transparency is definitely better and most certainly won’t make things worse, but I can’t see it making things much better either. Now, I readily admit I don’t know what does, because I understand the speech issues here. But, based on what I see in this country, there little evidence that when people knowing who is buying influence changes that influence significantly. If people refused to be manipulated when they became aware of being manipulated, Steven Spielberg wouldn’t have a film career.Report

    • Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to Dan Miller says:

      I agree that public funding of elections–and pre-election communications–would be a dramatic improvement in our process. In fact, I would consider it to be the most important structural reform to our political system: the average US Senator has to raise $60,000 every week he’s in office to run an averaged-sized re-election campaign. I know that if I had to raise $60,000 a week to keep my job, my attention would not be so much on the job itself.Report

      • My perspective is that public funding would be an incumbent protection act. Challengers need more than incumbents just to have an even chance. I understand the attraction of public financing and don’t mean to be dismissive ( as my Republican undergrad mentor said to me, elections are the public’s business, so the public ought to pay for them). I just think the union tended effect would be worse than the gain.Report

  9. ktward says:

    Dude! Forbes and MoJo? Call me impressed … and maybe a little paranoid that you’re stalking my RSS feeds. 😉

    Genuine congrats.

    I’ve got only a quick minute, but perhaps I echo some other comments here: post-election, I find that I’m more than a little relieved that all those corporate and Supersecret Pac millions didn’t ultimately work to buy critical elections, if any.

    That said, all that money does our political process zero good. I mean, y’all can hide behind some quixotic ideal of “free speech”, but modern-day campaign finance has evolved into a way more complex process with way more complex problems than can be distilled down into a First Amendment argument. (Some folks, including 5 of them on SCOTUS, apparently disagree with me.)

    I’ve never been a single-issue voter, but if I were to pick an issue that rose above any and all others, it would be campaign finance reform: legislative/regulatory baby steps that mandate and reliably enforced transparency, Constitutional Amendment, whatever. I’m on board.

    It’s frightening to me how abusive and deceptive campaign finance has become, and I don’t understand how any Joe Schmoe voter doesn’t find patently obscene the dollars we’re spending on our elections. Equally, I’d like to see our Hill Critters removed entirely from the ridiculously laborious business of raising funds so they can focus on the more important business of, you know, lawmaking.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to ktward says:

      “I don’t understand how any Joe Schmoe voter doesn’t find patently obscene the dollars we’re spending on our elections. ”

      Because if you break it down into dollars-per-likely-voter, the “patently obscene” amount being spent would barely cover dinner for two at the Olive Garden.Report

  10. DensityDuck says:

    Yes, non-transparent big money buying the election is why California’s Prop 30 got strafed so badly and Prop 32 passed like grass through a goose–er wait, it was exactly the opposite? Well, what do you know about that.

    Meanwhile, Prop 37, with overt backing by Monsanto, was handily rejected by the vo–oh wait, that one didn’t pass either. Huh.Report