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Michael Swartz / Jan. 24, 2020

Citizens United: A Decade of 'Dark Money'

Ten years after the monumental Supreme Court decision, has political funding changed?

Lost in this week’s ongoing impeachment saga was an important commemoration: the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a First Amendment victory decried by leftists who claim it has opened up political speech to anonymous “dark money” special interests.

As Democrat FEC member Ellen Weintraub complained, “It’s a victory for free speech for billionaires but not a victory for free speech for the rest of us.” Put another way, the Left doesn’t like political speech that opposes the progressive agenda, which includes ObamaCare, extremist environmental policies, and gun control.

Citizens United is a conservative group that describes itself as being “well known for producing high-impact, sometimes controversial, but always fact-based documentaries filled with interviews of experts and leaders in their fields.” The court case stemmed from the group’s efforts to promote, during the 2008 presidential campaign, a documentary that was critical of Hillary Clinton. Its effort was denied because it failed to comply with restrictions put in place by the old McCain-Feingold “campaign-finance reform” rules, which forbade “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations within 30 days of a primary or 60 days before the general election. With the 2008 primary season getting a very early start and lasting though much of the spring, such campaigning became basically off limits for several crucial months. For this reason, critics called McCain-Feingold and other similar measures “incumbent protection acts.”

On the anniversary of the decision bearing the group’s name, Citizens United President David Bossie observed, “If people want to band together to spend money to influence an election, it’s their First Amendment right to do so, but the Left’s dire predictions about corporate money taking over our elections never transpired.”

In fact, even with the rise of billionaire bundlers, the top 10 individual spenders only contributed 7% of election spending in 2018 — a sum dwarfed by the mountains of money that smaller donors are now contributing, especially to Democrat presidential contenders whose very presence on their debate stage depends on hitting a quota of individual contributors. (Notably absent because of that contribution caveat: billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who has so far spent $250 million of his own fortune yet seems to be immune from the Left’s criticisms about Citizens United and the buying of elections.)

In the past decade, we’ve heard the constant caterwauling of leftist politicians and their media allies, all of whom prefer the old system and the control it afforded them over our political speech. Couple that with a general lack of awareness about the issue, and it’s easy to see why support for the Citizens United decision has eroded. A Morning Consult/Politico poll from last July found that 54% of respondents opposed the decision, while only 19% supported it. (Oddly enough, 49% also agreed they were “likely” to support a candidate who funds his own campaign while just 20% opposed it.) So thoroughly maligned is Citizens United that Americans are reportedly even willing to change the Constitution to kill it off once and for all.

We in our humble shop will be the first to admit that our political financing system is the worst one out there — except for all the others. Try as they might, though, no amount of political spending can convince the people to pull the lever for someone or something they oppose. Thus, Mike Bloomberg can buy every available ad spot for next week’s Super Bowl, but he won’t be able to change the vote of a single Second Amendment supporter. And that’s the beauty of our system.

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