Critics warned that a flood of corporate money would irreparably taint politics. No such thing happened.
When the Supreme Court announced its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the public condemnation from certain quarters was fierce. The notion that a corporation would spend large sums of money to support or denounce a political candidate struck many Americans as deeply troubling. Some saw the court’s 5-4 ruling, which held that corporate political spending is protected by the First Amendment, as constituting a grave threat to the democratic fabric of society.
“Starting today, corporations with large war chests to deploy on electioneering may find democratically elected bodies becoming much more attuned to their interests,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in a 90-page dissenting opinion. He retired from the Supreme Court at the end of that term and later suggested a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling.
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Many of Citizens United’s harshest critics imagined a nation controlled by multibillion-dollar corporations that would dictate business-friendly legislation to paid-for lawmakers. A New York Times editorial predicted that the ruling would “thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century” by allowing “corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections.” The Washington Post warned that “corporate money, never lacking in the American political process, may now overwhelm both the contributions of individuals and the faith they may harbor in their democracy.” The San Francisco Chronicle warned that “voters should prepare for the worst: cash-drenched elections presided over by free-spending corporations.”
Since those predictions, two presidential and four congressional elections have come and gone. There’s now solid data, filed with the Federal Election Commission, showing how much money corporations have spent in recent elections. It turns out the apocalyptic forecasts were not just inaccurate but utterly insupportable.