This week marked 10 years since the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United v. FEC decision, which opened a floodgate for wealthy donors and corporate money’s flow into politics. And with the exception of a few anniversary articles, like this one, it largely went unnoticed. That’s because the world Citizens United created — unlimited money in politics and legally unchallenged corporate personhood — is now simply the toxic civic air we breathe.
“Independent” expenditures from super PACs — unfettered committees often only marginally independent from campaigns — and “dark money” from nonprofits with unknown backers comprised roughly 40 percent of total spending on federal campaigns in 2016. And although a small but high-profile cadre of congressional candidates, and presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, rely on online small-dollar fund-raising, experts expect moneyed interests and megadonors to shatter spending records in the 2020 cycle.
The unceasing, norm-destroying political chaos of the Trump era has eclipsed the fact that the environment Citizens United unleashed could be the status quo for a lifetime, courtesy of the generational lock on the courts Donald Trump handed conservatives. It’s a feat that has earned the president the fealty of the professional right. And it has forced reformists on the left — who briefly had hopes for a liberal majority on the Supreme Court, before Mr. Trump’s election — to come up with alternative plans for nationwide democratic change.
“Opportunity definitely died on election night 2016 for federal court reform,” said Scott Greytak, a lawyer who worked at Free Speech for People, a boutique litigation firm that, until then, was leading the charge against Citizens United. Now, he said, “All the energy and attention has been pushed down to the state and local level. And importantly, it’s no longer money in politics only.”
“During the Obama administration, people out in the country used to look to us in D.C.,” Mr. Greytak added. “Now they’re like, forget about it.”
Over the past three years, previously siloed reform organizations have been decentralizing, widening their network of collaborators. Heavyweights like Eric Holder, the former attorney general, have joined with lesser-known state representatives, everyday people and even university math wonks, to tackle gerrymandering. Rising stars like Stacey Abrams have helped refocus efforts on increasing voting access, registration and turnout. White-collar professionals on the coasts with roots in the interior of the country are sharing resources and working directly with organizers in their hometowns, through groups like Heartland Rising, to flip previously abandoned districts.
Ritzy gatherings of the liberal intelligentsia have telegraphed a new openness as well, by inviting grass roots groups to co-host events. Take, for one, the Ford Foundation’s Realizing Democracy conference this past fall in Manhattan, a professed “learning series” where longtime political figures and representatives from the Open Society Foundations shared the spotlight with swing state activists and City Council representatives. Dorian Warren, the head of the nonprofit Community Change, was among the lead panelists; Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook, and other big name guests mostly listened on.
Even as a national election begins, talk of “gearing hyperlocal solutions,” strengthening regional labor unions and re-establishing the states as “laboratories of democracy” abounds. But this passion in the democracy reform space is still paired with a nagging dread over how much work there is to do.
Despite the “blue wave” of the 2018 midterms, the Republican Party still holds 61 percent of state legislative chambers. Their struggle is compounded by the tilted playing field created by Citizens United, especially at the state and local levels: A study looking back at the 2010s conducted by Anna Harvey, a professor of politics at New York University, published this fall in the journal Public Choice, concluded that Citizens United “led not only to greater likelihoods of election for Republican state legislative candidates but also to larger within-district increases in their conservatism.”
And until the last couple of years, “it just hasn’t been the case that progressives have built up organizations that are federated,” said Alex Hertel-Fernandez, a Columbia professor and author of the book “State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States — and the Nation.” He argues that, even now, rather than “pool resources across states” as conservative networks do, liberals in rich blue states tend to send money to single-issue nationally led organizations, like Planned Parenthood or the American Civil Liberties Union.
One solution being pushed by some activists is to create a system of public campaign financing parallel to the widened stream of private funds. Seattle has recently adopted a “democracy voucher” program, which distribute funds to voters who can then donate to the candidates of their choice. (Seattle has also recently restricted corporate involvement in local politics through foreign interference laws). And New York State will match six to one donations by people who give less than $250.
If broadened to the federal level, public financing might free candidates from the disproportionate influence of affluent and corporate donors, while allowing much of the money currently geared toward electioneering to be rededicated to movement building.
Once candidates are in office, such a program would spare politicians (and their constituents) the indignity of their spending as much as 70 percent of their time asking donors for money, as members of currently Congress do. Those dynamics have a real effect: A now infamous 2014 study that analyzed American politics across three decades found that “average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence” on public policy.
Though partisanship dominates national discourse, polls show that large majorities remain united in the belief that corruption is still the most important issue facing the country. Armed with this knowledge, House Democrats passed a sprawling democracy bill last year that would provide a six-to-one federal match for any donation of $200 or less. These people-powered matching funds could supercharge the democratizing influence on politics that small online donations have already demonstrated in limited doses.
Whether campaign-finance reform will be atop the agenda, in the event of another blue wave this fall, remains to be seen. In their best case 2021 scenario, Democrats will only have gained a slim majority in the Senate. Yet, Bill Dauster, a former deputy chief of staff to Harry Reid, is among a crop of Democrats who think “budget reconciliation,” a maneuver Republicans used in 2017 to pass tax cuts, could also be used to pass public financing with a simple majority.
Sabeel Rahman, the leader of the progressive think tank Demos, insists that his group’s recent, successful campaign for public financing in the District of Columbia — a majority-minority city with wealthy and working-class residents — “showed it’s an issue all communities can get behind.”
Mr. Warren, the president of Community Change, which coordinates with over 200 grass roots organizations, was a bit more cautious: “If there is a political opening, we’re all going to be fighting over priorities.” Any progressive White House in 2021 would inevitably be pressed by many in his coalition to put direct, pocketbook issues first.
Still, he added, “There is more energy on democracy reform now than 10 years ago,” when practical, direct policies were mostly stopped in their tracks. “People realize we can’t get there with the democracy that we don’t have.”
Talmon Joseph Smith is on the staff of The New York Times Opinion section.
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