“The fact is that the system is broken. I predict to you there will be scandals,” Sen. John McCain lamented on CNN this month when asked about the current state of campaign finance.
Sen. McCain was referring to a 2010 Supreme Court Decision in which Citizens United sued the U.S. government for not allowing them to run an anti-Hillary Clinton ad during the democratic primary, arguing that the restriction violated their freedom of speech as a corporation. The Supreme Court, in a monumental decision, overturned the law, allowing unlimited influence by corporations and unions in national elections for the first time since 1947.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the opinion of the court, argued that corporations have the same protection of free speech under the First Amendment as individuals, so their influence on campaigns should be limitless.
Justice John Paul Stevens, however, adamantly objected to the court’s decision, arguing that wealthy Americans will essentially have more political influence than poor and middle-class Americans who can’t afford to make political donations. Unfortunately, Justice Stevens was right, and the disastrous effects of the court’s ruling are emerging as the election season heats up.
Ultra-rich Americans now donate millions to what are known as Super PACs, political action committees that typically run attack campaigns on behalf of their preferred candidate. Super PACs drown out the voices of those who do not have the luxury to spend millions of dollars on political campaigns.
For example, Sheldon Adelson, a casino owner in Las Vegas, just donated $10 million to a Mitt Romney Super PAC. In a Forbes magazine interview, he said his political donations could be “limitless” to prevent President Obama’s “socialization” of America. Adelson is worth an estimated $20 to $25 billion and could finance Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign single-handedly if he so chooses.
Adelson acknowledges that his personal wealth gives him greater political influence than others. “I’m against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections,” Adelson explained. “But as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it. Because I know that guys like Soros have been doing it for years, if not decades. And they stay below the radar by creating a network of corporations to funnel their money. I have my own philosophy and I’m not ashamed of it.” Adelson justifies his donations by the example of George Soros, a left-leaning activist who has funded Democratic campaigns for years. This allows for continuous funding, as blame is always placed on others.
Consequently, even when wealthy Americans are aware that they’re literally buying extra political influence, they continue to do it anyway since that’s simply how politics is played these days.
The issue of wealthy Americans buying political influence will only worsen as our government expands and has a greater influence in daily life. In the past five years, the government has expanded its influence by deciding which startup companies receive loans and which banks receive $1 billion in bailout money. Corporations not only have an ideological stake in election results, but they increasingly have financial stakes as well.
The new ruling thus far has helped the Republican party more than Democrats. But the Citizens United decision has the potential to be disastrous for the future of free elections in the U.S. While there ought to be concern for keeping free speech in elections, ultimately the lower- and middle-class political opinions must be protected from those with the money to buy influence.
Scott Gumbiner is a LSA junior.