Thanks to the Supreme Court, this year’s midterm elections will be brought to you by Microsoft. In a tight 5-4 decision, the Court ruled Thursday against bans on corporate spending in elections, making way for untold amounts of corporate money in our political races The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, was originally brought to the Supreme Court to determine if federal finance laws applied to a 2008 film critical of then-Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73. The majority ruled that the government may not hamper the free speech rights of companies in elections, with Chief Justice John Roberts saying that supporting the decades-old limits on elections spending by companies would inhibit “the vibrant public discourse that is at the foundation of our democracy.”
In protecting the “vibrant public discourse” of the nation, the Supreme Court is striking at the heart of American democracy and popular sovereignty. The ruling opens federal, state and local elections to billions of dollars from both domestic and foreign firms hoping to influence their outcome. There are those that will say that a good idea is a good idea, regardless of how much funding it gets and that voters will support those that they think will best lead them even if the candidates face the opposition of wealthy firms. But how vibrant will the public discourse be during an election when one side is equipped with a handheld megaphone while the other has PA system on the scale of the Cowboys stadium?
The ruling makes moot the great work that so many groups across campus do to reach out to voters. Over the past two years, Yalies have made tens of thousands of phone calls and dozens of canvassing trips to support candidates and issues across the political spectrum. These grassroots organizing efforts will be ineffectual in future campaigns when corporations can, without a second thought, throw more financial backing behind a candidate than previous campaigns’ entire budgets. The price of entry in highly contested elections just skyrocketed.
The 2008 federal elections — including presidential, House and Senate races — were the most expensive in history, adding up to a price tag of roughly $5.4 billion. For the same year, Exxon Mobil reported profits of $45.2 billion. Exxon could have bought every seat in the House, Senate and the Oval Office without realizing the money was spent. By giving firms the power to set the agenda and to speak to voters in a way no individual campaign can, Thursday’s ruling will hinder efforts by individuals, candidates and even parties to take part in elections. In addition, firms will have unimaginable influence in policy because the mere threat of enormous campaign spending will be enough to make policymakers reconsider any decision to take on Wall Street.
Some say that this vision of the potential future is alarmist and apocalyptic. They say that, even given the protection of the Citizens United decision, corporations will restrain themselves from interfering too heavily in political races for fear of alienating their shareholders and consumers. This could be the case if firms lacked the ability to shield their identities from the public by funneling their political contributions through special interest groups. With trillions of dollars in yearly government spending, it will be highly lucrative for firms to invest in political campaigns in hopes of getting a piece of the pie.
There is cause for hope. Members of the House and Senate are currently working with the Obama Administration on legislation that would weaken the ruling, putting in place regulations that would make it less attractive and more difficult for firms to broadcast campaign-related media. A constitutional amendment, though less feasible, is being considered as well. Whatever the action, the White House and Congress will need to act swiftly before the decision’s effects take root.
We must not allow the grim vision of the future under Citizens United v. F.E.C. to be a political reality. We have come too far and we have worked too hard to allow corporations to take over the political process. The stakes are too high. We must make clear to our representatives that it is our voice, the voice of the people, which makes our democracy vibrant and which legitimizes the work of our government.
Zak Newman is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College and the Events Coordinator for the Yale College Democrats.