The Lowdown on Citizens United and Campaign Contributions

In 2010, a court case known as Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission changed the structure of campaign financing in a big way. At first, my impression was that it removed all limits from corporate spending on a particular candidate. It didn’t. Not exactly anyway.

What it did explicitly was make it so a corporation’s advertisements for a particular candidate are now protected under the First Amendment. If this doesn’t seem like a big deal, believe me, it is. This means that corporate interests can spend an unlimited amount advertising for a particular candidate as long as that spending is not directly coordinated by the candidate’s campaign.

But what is campaigning, if it is not advertisement? Filming campaign commercials, purchasing TV spots, putting up signs, designing and sending out mailers… This all costs money, and now corporations can spend as much as they want on it.

Legally and technically, corporations that pay for advertisements are not directly giving to campaigns. But there is no real reason why the campaign could not direct the corporation on the advertisements (as long as no money changes hands), and this effectively means that corporations can spend an unlimited amount on campaigns. You can see what this has meant practically here.

So Citizens United radically altered the balance of power in elections. It puts a huge amount of sway in the hands of corporate interests and lobbyists since the aggregate limit for individual contributions has not changed. But there is a Supreme Court decision in the air that could change that, thus removing almost all limitations on campaign finance: McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission.

A New York Times article summarized some of the arguments:

Should the court agree that some overall limits are unconstitutional, the decision could represent a reassessment of a basic distinction established in a 1976 decision, Buckley v. Valeo, which said contributions may be regulated more strictly than expenditures because of their potential for corruption.


Independent spending, the court said, is political speech protected by the First Amendment. But contributions may be capped, the court said, in the name of preventing corruption.


The effect of the distinction is to allow unlimited spending from rich people, corporations and unions so long as the spending is not coordinated with the candidate they support. Several justices suggested that it makes no sense in such an environment to limit direct contributions to candidates and parties.


“It’s not that we’re stopping people from spending big money on politics,” Justice Scalia said.

Exactly. Corporations obviously have a greater ability than individuals to avoid indictments for campaign finance fraud (Sorry, Dinesh D’Souza). In the current environment, removing individual aggregate limitations seems the most even-handed thing to do, but it will and can result in only more bought politicians and bought elections.

Whose fault is all of this? Ours. Average citizens do not vote on the basis of political ideology, content of character, voting records, etc. They are easy targets for big money advertisements because they don’t actually assess the issues or the candidates—they just vote for the talking head that most inundates their lemming-visions. Until that starts to change, money is and will be the final arbiter of this democracy.

42 responses

  1. People need to become more involved with their local politics. Help campaign for someone or something. Then they can see how the money moves. Then in time understand that the same thing happens at the national level just much larger numbers. Once people understand this, then they will know to hunt for the best candidate verse trusting the news, posters or whatever other advertisement they see. Example do you buy a car because of the advertisement or because you did some research and discovered this is the model you want. yes, advertisement will get your attention and give one a good starting place to do the research. I also understand there are some people out there that are going to buy the car because its cute and blue. We just have to hope there more people willing to do some research verse cute and blue. Then we would have an educated voting public and at that point the campaign funds probably would not matter, well as much.

  2. The U.S. was founded as a plutocracy and to this day it remains a plutocracy; any resemblance to a true democracy is all for show.

    • The United States in America was NEVER “founded” to be anything resembling “a true democracy”. The term “democracy” and all its derivatives is nowhere to be found in the US Constitution, NOR the Declaration of Independence. So, try educating your own self before scolding the rest of the world. Please. The ORIGINAL INTENT of the US Constitution was to carefully limit the power of “the general government” – and the STATES were expected to be ONE of the CHECKS on the “balance of power” – hence the tenth amendment. It was Wilson and his social-communists who pushed the 17th amendment into the land, that took away the power of legislatures to APPOINT their representative senators to Congress, the other house being the popularly elected House of Representatives (what I now call, reprehensibles – which also, now, includes the Senate).

      • I tried educating myself but couldn’t swallow the illusion. And I wasn’t aware that I was scolding the rest of the world – was my comment that magnanimous.

        • You are anything but “magnanimous”. Ignoramus, intentionally, or by design. That’s the only “animus” to which you might claim possession. Like a slug in an Armand Hammer owned Amazonian swamp.

          • You prove once again, that when you hit a nerve people like you have only one response – ad hominem attack.

          • It is not “ad hominem” to call an ignorant person “ignorant”. Ignorance is due to lack of learning and bigotry is defined as adhering to that ignorance when faced with facts that refute it.

      • Yeah, you’re right; that’s why when 90% of the people want GMO labels, Monsanto overrules and shows itself to be the true government of the republic.

        • And in a representative republic you work through your elected representatives to change it. If Monsanto rules, blame your slimy elected officials and the bureaucrats they appoint, not our syatem of government. Democracy always leads to a tyranny of the majority and mob rule.

          • Right again; I sure do enjoy the tyranny of corporations and plutocrats over that of a decrepit democracy.

          • “Democracy” is the precursor to rule by tyrants. Read some history before you speak. Otherwise you expose your typical leftist ignorance.

          • You sure as hell would when you were the minority suffering under the tyranny of the majority.

      • Abinoco, Don’t confuse a social democracy with a political democracy.

        A constitutional republic requires “educated” citizens who have skin in the game and can engage in robust and rational debate (Socialisms cannot function without the freeloaders wanting their freebies because the big bad corporations and rich owe them, from your narrow line of thinking). A society has to be dumbed down and or be softened to accept Socialisms and their superficial attraction.

    • OK, I stand corrected: The U.S. was founded as a plutocracy and to this day it remains a plutocracy; any resemblance to a true republic is all for show.

      • No the original confederation failed because they could not come to agreement on currency and uniformity of laws. Can you quote a passage in the US Constitution OR the Declaration of Independence that includes “democracy”? NONE of us should hold our breaths while you seek it.

  3. Normally, I agree with the OPINIONS expressed at this site. But, on this I have to take issue. You denigrate voters by assuming that we are all suckers for the old “fish for sale” mantra. Well, I got news for you from “flyover country”. Look at the state houses if you think corporate money rules – democrats and republicans alike (liberals and conservatives, if you like) are pretty evenly matched in many of those “stupid people” states that you think we all are. When 4+ MILLION “stupid people” joined the NRA, they EXPECTED the NRA to represent the Second Amendment, and not gun or ammo manufacturers. And the NRA has done what is expected (by and large) by the millions of people it represents. REMEMBER, why the NRA was founded? To promote the shooting “arts” so that we, as a nation of 50 sovereign states, could be prepared to defend ourselves against all invaders (or go to war overseas, if needed). People already knew how to shoot quail and ducks and deer. So, if I and several million others give money to a group that promotes my interests, where is the foul?

  4. The fact that money is the final arbiter on who gets elected is an indictment of the voting public. Thus, it’s possible that the democratic republic of the USA is no longer politically viable. What can replace it?

  5. CU is feudal Crapitalism at its best. Mega-billion dollar corporations using advertising to promote a hand picked candidate is the epitome of corruption. It is the torching of Democracy. This fool is profoundly mistaken.

    • Oh, but the government in DC can give BILLIONS of dollars to ACORN to promote socialism? Soros and Gates can give billions of dollars to promote their candidates. A mayor of New York can give millions of dollars to defeat “popular will” in Colorado and elsewhere on issues and representatives the populace detest, but my puny LLC cannot donate money to MY chosen candidates or causes?! Get the fucking government out of our elections.

  6. All this nonsense stems from the wacko idea that corporations are people – they are not! A corporation is a legally defined entity that exists only on paper for a specific purpose. Corporations only have the rights we the people grant them. People need to take their power back and truncate this ridiculous notion of corporate personhood.

    • Congress created the IRS. IRS defined “persons” as “corporate”. By THEIR perverse logic, looking backwards, corporations are persons, and persons are corporate. And, while a US Supine Court justice “declared” same prior to making an 1890’s “decision” for the majority of SCOTUS, in a wholly unrelated case, the notion has stuck – thanks to communists and socialists who brought us the 16th and 17th amendments and the Federal reserve. Live with that. After all, it is that same LEFT, like you (?), who think the only ones capable of understanding Constitutional matters, in order to declare “constitutionality”, are lawyers and courts. The rest of us, including our representatives, senators, and even the president, should shut the fuck up on “constitutionality” of “laws”.

        • Only for the purposes of holding the “corporation” liable for some fault IT created. Some SCOTUS judge made it “the law of the land” without Congressional “legislation” (the “sole legislative body”). And the political machines have accepted that since. For whatever purposes they desired. And let us not forget who was given huge swaths of land by Congress: the railroad moguls. Individuals. Not corporations, necessarily, until they had the lands.

    • If corporations are subject to the SAME proscriptive laws as individuals, then – AT LAW – they are the same as “persons”. That is all that means. If persons can be sued for slander or copyright infringement, and corporations likewise, then if follows that defining terms are “at law”, not in a dictionary, and hence corporations are the SAME AS persons. And, if persons have rights, then so do the corporations – which, after all, are merely fictions of government to define “groups” of individuals. Live with it.

      • “Live with it” – if ever there was a fascist cry that is it. The corporate doctrine is nothing more than a legal right to steal, lie, and destroy without consequences. Whatever rights the corporations have are granted by the people – obviously a truly scary thought to you – the people might wake up some day and realize that the people behind the corporations are the ones that must suffer legal consequences for wrongs committed by the ‘corporation’.

        • So? Take it up with Congress then. They are the body that is empowered by the US Constitution to make corporations. People “like me” didn’t do it. Why are YOU so afraid to admit to the fascism that Congress creates – and by extension, its apologists like you support?

  7. The Institute for Justice helped argue the case. People in a neighborhood who wanted to discuss politics or put up signs were sued because they had not paid 2000 to file as a PAC .

    IJ posts the biggest myths about CU. It protects the political speech of more than just the, ooooo, big bad corporations.

Leave a Reply