Any intelligent person following American politics these days should be deeply distressed by the ever-growing role of big money in our electoral process. The extraordinary concentration of wealth in the hands of relatively few Americans has completely distorted the nature of political discourse. As multi-millionaires, billionaires and powerful corporations are now free to spend unlimited amounts in order to dominate public debate, we have moved from a political system founded on the aspiration of one person/one vote to one increasingly founded on money/money/money. Of course, there are those who say that money doesn’t really matter. What matters, they say, is the quality of the candidates and the strength of their ideas. Unfortunately, in a world of high-stakes and high-cost media, this is nonsense. Speech matters. It shapes people’s perceptions, knowledge and attitudes. Why else would businesses spend billions of dollars each year on commercial advertising? Corporations and billionaires are not stupid. They would not waste millions of dollars to fund an endless flood of political ads if those ads didn’t pay off. They do. Money may not guarantee victory, but it definitely helps. Imagine a presidential debate in which the candidates were invited to buy debate time. Instead of the debate time being allocated equally, each candidate would bid for minutes, so the candidate with the most money would buy the most minutes in the debate. What would we think of that? That is effectively what has happened to our political system. This is a disaster for our nation. It alienates voters, enables a coterie of highly-self-interested millionaires and corporations to distort our national political discourse, and causes elected officials desperately to curry favor with wealthy supporters, often at the expense of the public interest.
The current state of affairs is due largely to two decisions of the United States Supreme Court — Buckley v. Valeo (1976) and Citizens United (2010) — in which the Court held that government cannot constitutionally limit the amount of money that individuals (Buckley) or corporations (Citizens United) can spend in the “marketplace of ideas” to bring about the election of their favored political candidates. As a consequence of the doctrines set forth in those two decisions, the Court has invalidated a host of federal and state laws enacted by American citizens across the nation in the hope of stemming the tide of political dollars.
Ironically, by attempting in these decisions to protect the freedom of speech from undue government interference, the Court has inflicted grave damage on the very political system that the freedom of speech is designed to promote. Although the dire consequences of these decisions may not have been evident in 1976, and may not even have been fully evident in 2010, we can now see clearly what the Court has wrought.
Full Article: Geoffrey R. Stone: Fixing Citizens United.