Since the dawn of human history, wealthy people have had a disproportionate level of influence over the political process, regardless what policies are enacted in an effort to prevent it. When the Supreme Court overturned the government’s ban on citizens organizing in groups and expressing themselves in political advertisements via the Citizens United v. FEC ruling, some well-meaning politicos declared that moneyed interests would soon buy up the U.S. government, creating an impermeable billionaires’ club establishment that can never be defeated politically.
In reality, Citizens United v. FEC has, rather than further entrenching existing industrial complexes, unleashed a multi-billion dollar negative advertising machine, trashing candidates from coast-to-coast by exposing their voting records to voters, most of whom have little time in their day-to-day lives to follow all of their legislators’ moves. If a candidate for re-election votes in a way that is offensive to an advocacy group, that group can now blanket the airwaves with ads educating voters on that fact.
Meanwhile, the criticism that free speech in political advertising will favor billionaires at the expense of the poor assumes that people align politically on the basis of their income level, rather than their political views. In reality, rich and downtrodden Americans alike each have their own opinions and often align individually on issues. The 2016 presidential race, where billionaire Donald Trump is attempting to seize the Republican nomination while the even-richer Koch brothers fight against him, shows that America’s ultra-wealthy are not in lock-step agreement with each other. Prior to the Citizens United ruling, a candidate like Donald Trump would have had an even larger advantage than he does now that the Koch brothers can weigh in on the race with advertisements letting citizens know what to expect from a Trump presidency.
On the center-right side of the political spectrum, billionaires like socially-conservative Sheldon Adelson fight for different candidates and issues than the more libertarian-leaning billionaires like PayPal founder Peter Thiel. Leftist George Soros can do battle dollar-for-dollar with nearly any conservative-leaning ultra-wealthy philanthropist.
Citizens United allows companies to educate voters when regulations will have an impact on their prices and products. It allows policy advocates to raise money, often from smaller donors through fundraising vehicles like money bombs, to educate voters when the outcomes of elections will affect the issues that are important to them.
Prior to the Citizens United ruling, it was already impossible for a candidate to win a state-wide political race without a massive war chest filled with donations, and nothing in that sense has changed. The wealthiest people can always hire lawyers to conjure loopholes through which their interests can be achieved no matter what laws are passed in an effort to block them. However, Citizens United has opened up political advocacy to groups funded by large numbers of small donors who previously couldn’t use billionaires’ legal maneuvers to sidestep campaign finance limits.
Citizens United has also evened the playing field between citizens and owners of corporate media outlets. What is the fundamental difference between a billionaire starting a media company that publishes opinion articles and an advocacy group expressing a political viewpoint by purchasing a commercial on that same media outlet to expose a vote from a politician’s record that the media is not publicizing?
Regarding the 2016 presidential campaign, Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote, “The best-financed candidates seem to be enjoying no dramatic advantage over their less-well financed opponents. On the Republican side, Jeb Bush has collected $120 million in donations to lead all Republicans in the money sweepstakes, yet he trails Donald Trump badly in the polls. Trump has raised a mere $1.9 million—and $1.8 million of that is a Trump loan! Ben Carson is beating both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in the polls despite raising a fourth of their loot.”
He added, “On the Democratic Party side, poll leader Hillary Clinton leads the money race with $67.8 million, but her poll numbers are dropping at about the same rate that Bernie Sanders’ are rising, and the Sanders campaign has raked in only $15.2 million.”
It is also worth noting that prior to the Citizens United ruling, billionaire Donald Trump still would have been able to self-finance his own campaign. Now that free speech has been unleashed in political advertising, advocacy groups and other wealthy individuals can self-finance the opposition to a candidate’s campaign, thus neutralizing, rather than empowering, particular moneyed interests’ control over politics.