The 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court was perhaps the worst single decision that has negatively affected our democracy in decades. The decision has basically allowed millions in so-called ‘dark money’ to infest our elections. While most of the money contributions require disclosure as to who or what group is behind certain ads, some tax-exempt groups are able to get around such requirements. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, dark money spending went from $5.2 million in 2006 to $183.5 million in the 2016 election cycle. Interestingly enough, 22.5% of that spending was done by liberal interest groups while conservative groups spent the rest. In other words, while both liberal groups and conservative groups are taking advantage of the system as it stands now, conservative groups are far and away spending the bulk of this money. The system now in place is a microcosm of where our democracy stands these days. In a nutshell, corporations and wealthy Americans have an outsized influence on our politicians. While the elite have always had this influence, it has now reached a fever pitch. The real question is, what can we do about it and which party will take the lead in fixing this terrible system?
It’s pretty clear that the Republicans, who have control of all three branches of government have no intention of tackling this issue. To them, it’s working for their benefit so why change the status quo? To be fair, even though it’s been the Democrats who have brought this issue to the forefront, they still exploit the system as well. In addition, while Barack Obama did call out this awful decision in a joint session of Congress with most of the Supreme Court Justices in attendance, he didn’t do a whole lot to move things forward. Of course there wasn’t a whole lot he could have done with the opposition party totally opposed to taking action. This is not to say however that Democrats aren’t at least trying. According to Sarah Kleiner from the Center for Public Integrity, in a Time Magazine piece, Democrats have introduced nearly two dozen bills addressing this issue. Unfortunately, hardly any of them have Republican co-sponsors. The Republicans have also introduced some bills concerning campaign finance reform but the majority of those would do little to address reform in any meaningful way. In fact, most would tilt the scales even further toward wealthy donors.
Several of the Democratic bills deal with disclosure requirements, reasonable limitations on campaign spending and raising money, as well as stricter regulations on foreign money finding its way into our elections. These are all worthy proposals and should be debated. But maybe the only way to change the system once and for all is through the Constitutional Amendment process. Yes, this would be the most difficult and far-reaching but it’s worth a shot. There are Democrats leading this charge and in the long run it may be the last best hope we have in changing the system. It’s not meant to be a quick process. Our founders assured it wouldn’t be. But as we have seen in the history of our country, meaningful change takes courage and patience.
Perhaps the real question we need to ask though is whether the American people care enough about this issue. With so many problems facing the middle-class and those wanting to join the middle-class, campaign finance reform never ranks high in polls as to what’s important to them. While polls indicate Democrats as well as Republican voters are concerned about the outsized influence money has on our politicians, it’s just not the sort of issue that gains much traction. This has to change. Democrats, in the upcoming election and in 2020 must seize this issue as their own. We know the Republican Party will not go down this road. Democrats have at least tried to make changes. Whether through legislation, the amendment process, or through the courts, changing the system as we know it must become the signature issue of the upcoming campaign. Until we level the playing field, nothing is going to change. It’s pretty clear only one political party is capable of leading the charge.