Imagine This: Next year, the Supreme Court accepts a campaign finance case for review and reverses its 2010 decision in Citizens United, which struck down a ban on independent electoral spending by corporations and unions. Many Americans would cheer, in the mistaken belief that the reversal would limit — if not end — the influence of super PACs. They’d be sorely disappointed. Super PACs are not dependent on corporate funding. They’re primarily funded by super-rich individuals, whose right to devote unlimited amounts of their own money on independent expenditures (those not involving direct contributions to candidates) was confirmed by the Court in 1976, in Buckley v. Valeo. As the Brennan Center, a fierce critic of the Citizens United ruling, has acknowledged, “the singular focus on the decision’s empowerment of for-profit corporations to spend in (and perhaps dominate) our elections may be misplaced.”
I’m not suggesting that the great majority of Americans who agree that money has “too much influence” in elections should be relieved that a handful of multibillionaires instead of for-profit corporations exercise that influence. But I am saying the Citizens United decision is not the source of all campaign finance evils.
It did not unleash spending by wealthy individuals. Even before a federal court decision following Citizens United facilitated the growth of super PACs, ultra-rich individuals were pouring money into elections through other vehicles. Some, like Rupert Murdoch, spoke through their media corporations. Others had their say by spending lavishly on elections: The leading liberal Democratic donors spent over $100 million in 2004.