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.
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.
Berkeley, the renowned progressive university town on San Francisco Bay, is the most recent place in the country to subsidize local elections. And the system worked as designed in its debut a year ago, cutting down the influence of big money and boosting competitiveness in the City Council elections.
While the public financing program for presidential campaigns has gone unused for almost a decade, because candidates haven't been willing to make the tradeoffs required, the concept is gaining steady acceptance elsewhere.
Baltimore is on the cusp of becoming one of the biggest cities in the country that gives taxpayer money to candidates willing to wean themselves off other sources of campaign cash.
The City Council approved legislation Monday creating a system of public matching funds for people running for local office who forswear donations from political action committees, corporations or unions — or from constituents wanting to give more than $150. Unless Democratic Mayor Jack Young rejects the bill, which seems unlikely, the system will take effect in the 2024 municipal campaign.
While the idea is effectively a dead letter at the federal level, public funding has gained steady popularity in states and localities, where advocates have successfully sold the idea as a way to stanch the sway that big money contributors exert on policymakers. Fourteen states and at least as many cities and counties now use grants, matching funds or vouchers to steer candidates away from private money.