Forty years ago today, the Supreme Court decided Buckley vs. Valeo, a case that has distorted our thinking and talking about money in politics for nearly two generations and that has taken this country down a perilous path on campaign finance. We should no longer mince words about the consequences for our representative government. Buckley, and its better-known offspring, 2010’s Citizens United vs. FEC, are leading us to plutocracy, a country in which those with the greatest wealth have a much better chance to influence elections and public policy than the rest of us. Despite that bleak assessment, there’s a small window for change opening.
In Buckley, the court held that campaign contributions could be limited in order to prevent corruption or its appearance, but that spending limits violate the First Amendment’s free speech protections. This ruling has allowed the superwealthy to spend as much as they want on their own campaigns or to independently support or oppose candidates for elected office.
No doubt setting limits on how much people can spend in or contribute to political campaigns raises First Amendment free speech and association concerns. Limits also raise the danger of protecting incumbents and stifling political competition.
Buckley’s fundamental error came not in recognizing these important principles — but in its discussion of how to balance them with society’s interests in limiting money in politics.