Panel: Citizens United a game changer
The Jan. 21, 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and a series of cases at lower-level courts are a "game changer" for American democracy, said panelists speaking at a Sept. 12 event hosted by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
"I think that we already see that it's bringing enormous amounts of money into politics," said Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Citizens United decision held that under the First Amendment, the government cannot restrict independent political expenditures made by corporations and unions.
It's difficult to say definitively whether or not political spending is directly related to political outcomes; however, it's worth noting that political donations have a twofold purpose, said Kay Lehman Schlozman, J. Joseph Moakley endowed professor of Political Science at Boston College.
"One is to affect who is going to win or lose in the election. The second is to affect what does the eventual winner do in office?" she said. "They're getting a kind of access to tell a story they believe in, that the rest of us who can't give those kinds of donations are not going to have."
"So, the test is not going to just be whether the American public turns out, or whether the biggest spender wins every election--which is not going to happen--but the extent to which there's differential access for those who are giving large amounts of money," said Lehman Schlozman.
Money as a political tool has greater influence than a person's time or their single vote, said Sidney Verba, Carl H. Pforzheimer university professor emeritus and research professor for government at Harvard University.
"Voting: Everybody's got one vote. Time to work for a candidate: There are only 24 hours in a day. But money, money can be expanded incredibly. And under the current rules, it is being expanded tremendously," said Verba.
The panelists agreed that those with more funds, and even individuals of higher socioeconomic status, have a greater voice and are more politically active than those with less money and of lower socioeconomic status. Still, it's difficult to assess whether those with more money or greater influence tend to vote one way or another or affect outcomes in a certain way.
Even if it is possible to flatten the stratification of voting and the inequality in political funding, it's unlikely anything will change anytime soon.
"Don't hold your breath," said Verba.
"In an age in which the Supreme Court has blown the lid off campaign finance regulation and the state legislatures are passing voter ID laws around the country, it's very easy to be despairing about what can be done to level the playing field of American democracy," said Lehman Schlozman.
- go to the event page (includes transcript and archived audio)