Does Citizens United Really Need to Be Overturned?

Rick Wilking / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

David Cole has a piece in our new issue about how campaign finance reformers could get the controversial Supreme Court decision reversed using an incremental approach, starting at the state and local level—a strategy that proved successful for interest groups like the NRA for District of Columbia v. Heller and Freedom to Marry for Obergefell v. Hodges:

The place to start the fight against Citizens United is not the Supreme Court, or even Washington, D.C., but the hinterlands. When federal constitutional law is against you, you must look for alternative forums in which to press your case. And as with guns and family relations, most of the laws regarding elections are made by the states.

And Cole notes how bipartisan the support is among the American people: “A September 2015 Bloomberg poll found that about 80 percent of Republicans and Democrats alike oppose Citizens United.” But this reader isn’t one of them:

Why are we still talking about this when the current campaign has shown that the whole Citizens United hysteria was unfounded? Democracy is alive and kicking, and it turns out that the elites actually can’t make the people vote for their candidate.

Another reader agrees, citing the less-than-successful campaign from Jeb “Please Clap” Bush, among others:

Bush blew through $100 million and basically got nothing to show for it. Trump has spent very, very little and is the frontrunner. Hillary’s money hasn’t been able stop Bernie. This election proves that Citizens United is not causing the problems people said it would.

Yesterday The New York Times charted the ad spending of this campaign season so far, showing just how much the Bush and Rubio campaigns outspent their competitors to no avail, and how comparatively little money Trump has spent due to his massive advantage with free media.

But Sean McElwee recently argued for Slate that “No, Jeb Bush’s failed campaign doesn’t mean Citizens United doesn’t matter”:

Saying that money doesn’t matter in politics because Jeb didn’t win the nomination is like saying because all the advertising in the world can’t make prune juice the best-selling drink in the United States, it’s worthless for Pepsi to buy Super Bowl spots.

The 2016 election aside, what about the impact of Citizens on state and local elections? From another Atlantic reader:

The down-ballot elections are going to prove otherwise. People pay attention to the presidency so billionaires can’t buy it. A judge or a congressman, on the other hand …

During a panel at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, hosted by The Atlantic’s James Bennet, lawyer David Boies argued “the real problem is at the state and local level” (his comments can be found around the 20-minute mark):

There was at least one interesting guest in the audience, Emma reported:

As they asked questions at the end of the session, many members of the audience seemed to be fairly opposed to the decision. But at least one member of the audience likely came to the conversation with a different perspective. David Koch—whose organization, the Koch Family Foundation, consistently spends large amounts of money in support of conservative candidates for office—was sitting in the front row.

Do you have any strong opinions on Citizens United? Let us know.