When Benjamin Franklin and the other founding fathers left Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention of 1787, anxious citizens waited outside the hall for news. A woman asked Franklin what they had created, to which Franklin responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
The United States is one of the world’s longest ongoing republics, withstanding tests from a civil war to economic collapse. Unfortunately, the integrity that has secured this epic republic’s success is in dire jeopardy. The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, more commonly known as Citizens United, threatens this great nation, and unless we tirelessly work to reverse its all-reaching power, it’ll erode the very core of this country.
The Citizens United decision was a 5-4 vote that opened the floodgates for limitless campaign contributions by individuals, corporations and unions to political “super PACs.” Although the exact details of the decision are complicated and could take up multiple novels — let alone a single column — the important factor of the Citizens United decision is that it reversed much of the McCain-Feingold Act, a 2002 campaign finance bill.
The 2012 election was the United States’ first true glimpse of the terrifying power that Citizens United had unleashed. The Federal Election Commission estimates that $7 billion was spent on the 2012 election cycle. Furthermore, according to The Wall Street Journal, super PACs spent $567,498,628 on the 2012 elections, $98 million in the final week of October. Of this massive amount of super PAC money, 58.9 percent of donations were $1 million or higher and were given by a total of 159 individuals. Most terrifying of all, because super PACs can accept funds from nonprofit organizations, which are legally allowed to conceal the identities of their donors, roughly 31 percent of outside spending in 2012 was given anonymously and cannot be traced to its original donor.
These numbers are truly staggering and have given us a preview of what a post-Citizens United America will look like. Individuals such as the Koch Brothers or Sheldon Adelson can fund entire campaigns and can single-handedly install elected officials who best protect their personal interests. Take, for example, Adelson, who famously bragged about donating $100 million in the 2012 election. If anyone truly believes that limitless campaign contributions don’t threaten our very democracy, let’s look at the role that Adelson and his multi-billion-dollar wealth played in 2012.
In early 2011, Adelson made it known that he was willing to do whatever it took to ensure President Barack Obama’s defeat in 2012. He originally supported Newt Gingrich as the Republican candidate and donated more than $20 million to the former speaker of the house’s campaign. Adelson wasn’t a fan of Romney, but once Gingrich fell out of the race, Adelson was forced to accept the GOP candidate. The billionaire’s support didn’t come easily, though. Looking back, it was solidified only after Romney attended a fundraiser in Israel at Adelson’s side. Perhaps desperate to appease Adelson’s famously hawkish views on Israel, Romney blamed “cultural differences” for the economic disparities between Israel and Palestine and admitted that peace was most likely unattainable.
Romney’s desperate appeasement of Adelson didn’t stop at just foreign policy. Within four days of being named Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) flew out to Las Vegas for a personal, closed-door meeting with Adelson. Because candidates are prohibited from explicitly asking for super PAC donations, the Romney campaign was quick to reassure the media that this was a “finance event, not a fundraiser.”
In the end, Adelson donated more $30 million to Restore Our Future, the super PAC that supported Romney. This may seem like a lot of money to you and me, but to a man worth more than $21 billion, it isn’t much. Had Romney been elected and had he implemented his tax plan filled with tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, Adelson would have saved approximately $2 billion. For a man who made his fortune in casinos, this was a bet that could’ve paid out big returns for him.
So what now? The court has ruled and now we must live with it, right? Wrong! On Wednesday, Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich.) spoke at the Ford School of Public Policy explaining his new legislation that, if passed, could reinstate some vital elements of campaign fundraising laws. Appropriately cited as the Restoring Confidence in Our Democracy Act, this bill would prohibit corporations and unions from buying advertising supporting campaign causes and would force super PACs to abide by the same $5,000 donation limit as regular PACs.
As Dingell made clear at the event, this bill certainly isn’t going to solve every problem within our campaign system, but it’s definitely a good start. Our democratic system is slowly but surely being auctioned off to the highest bidder. We need to reinstate some sort of order to a system that has become popularly known as the “wild, wild west.”
I highly doubt Franklin envisioned Citizens United when he ominously answered that woman’s question on the steps of Independence Hall. Regardless of what he meant with that statement, the United States now faces a colossal threat. Whether or not our republic survives, only time will tell.
Patrick Maillet can be reached at email@example.com.