Ten years ago exactly — on Jan. 21, 2010 — the Supreme Court gave the green light to unlimited political expenditures by corporations, labor unions and nonprofit groups. The decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which said curbs on such spending violated the First Amendment, fundamentally changed the way elections are financed today.
A decade later the majority opinion in Citizens United is labeled, more often than any other single thing, as the ultimate antagonist of the democracy reform movement. The ruling has become so infamous it's used as shorthand for a campaign financing system that gives lopsided political advantage to the wealthiest over everyday citizens, including for reasons that have nothing to do with that case. That said, however, the decision has permitted groups that are not affiliated with any candidate or political party to pour almost $4.5 billion into the subsequent campaigns for president and Congress — an astonishing six times the total for all such independent expenditures in the two previous decades.
The 10-year anniversary has campaign finance experts all along the ideological spectrum reflecting on what the decision has meant for American politics, and what changes to laws and regulations might withstand court challenges and limit the impact of Citizens United in the decade ahead — on the assumption the ruling is on the books for at least that much longer.
Normally, the annual report from the nation's chief justice doesn't receive much attention. But John Roberts' relatively short missive released on New Year's Day has set off, if not a firestorm, then at least a conflagration of response. And it's all over the map.
Roberts, who last year devoted his report to the treatment of law clerks, focused this year on the role the court plays in promoting civic education. He argues that "we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside."
To which many liberal commentators have shouted: "Hypocrite!" Others see a no-so-subtle brushback pitch aimed at President Trump.
Tracking the story of American democracy over the past decade has been a very complex undertaking, dominated by dispiriting accelerations of dysfunction but also punctuated by some developments meriting cautious optimism.
The Supreme Court opened the floodgates of money in politics, turned a blind eye to partisan gerrymandering and paved the way for dozens of measures making it harder to vote in places already marred by histories of political discrimination. Capitol Hill became more gridlocked by tribal partisan animus than ever, even when the topic was fixing the very system in which Congress is supposed to play a vibrant central role. And there's Donald Trump, who won the presidency in an election marked by unparalleled foreign interference and then took busting the norms of a democratic civil society to a whole new level.
At the same time, however, the ever more broken state of affairs in Washington was offset by successes in statehouses and city halls — and by the citizens themselves — at making democracy more equitable and productive for more people. Innovations in public financing of campaigns and election methods that reward consensus candidates were on the rise, while voting rights were returned to almost 2 million felons out of prison. Ballot initiatives and state courts moved against partisan power grabs in legislative mapmaking, allowing more people to pick their politicians, not the other way around.
Finally, the democracy reform movement itself built toward a critical mass of organizational muscle and funding strength. It even generated its own dedicated news site!
To get ready for the 2020s, when the debate over how to put the government more overtly back in the hands of the voters will be more urgent than ever, here's The Fulcrum's take on the top 10 stories about democracy's challenges from the decade now ending, in a somewhat rough chronological order.
Marty Wulfe opened his inbox one day this fall and found an unsettling email from an old friend.
It was a dire warning from the Maryland chapter of Common Cause: Special interests in his state are pushing a "dangerous" proposal for a second constitutional convention.
But Wulfe himself was one of those special interests, because he's a board member of Get Money Out – Maryland. The organization is lobbying the General Assembly to have the state join five others calling for a convention to consider changing the Constitution to allow Congress and state legislatures to rein in money in politics.
While he and other Get Money Out leaders "had a good laugh at being labeled a special interest group," said Wulfe (who views himself as a big fan of Common Cause), the opposition from one of the most venerable voices for democracy reform is no laughing matter. Instead, the rift highlights one of the most impassioned arguments these days in the world of good-government advocacy.