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.
Poll Americans on the leading Supreme Court cases of the past 100 years and Buckley v. Valeo, which turns 40 this month, won’t likely place alongside Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, or even Citizens United v. FEC. But it should. Buckley, which considered the constitutionality of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974, has immeasurably impacted how we choose our leaders and discuss public affairs. Most importantly it created the “Buckley distinction,” which protected political expenditures and contributions differently. This court-created split reverberates beyond campaign electioneering to issues like how the IRS polices politics, how the Department of Justice criminalizes political activity, and how the parties influence campaigns. Four decades on, the distinction’s uneasy compromise supplies Buckley’s relevance—for better and worse.