How Citizens United Gave Us Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump

The notorious case decided six years ago today unleashed $1 billion in super PAC spending. And provoked a violent backlash.

There would be no Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders boom without Citizens United.

The infamous Supreme Court case, decided six years ago today, banned limits on corporate spending in elections. That money has heavily favored establishment candidates, even keeping some alive when they would otherwise be dead (like Jeb Bush). No wonder the grassroots left and right get more angry that politicians seem to respond to billionaires’ whims instead of their needs. No wonder a “democratic socialist” and a wealthy demagogue are doing well in the polls.

Citizens United didn’t just unleash corporate spending; it enabled the creation of a whole new vehicle for influencing elections: super PACs. These pseudo-corporations don’t have to disclose their donors and can spend unlimited amounts on elections, as long as they’re not officially coordinating with specific candidates (which has turned out to be a joke).

Once the floodgates were opened, super PACs deluged local and national elections with money. In 2014’s Senate races, outside groups spent $486 million, twice the amount they spent in 2010 before Citizens United. In 10 elections tracked by the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, super PACs actually spent more than candidates did, by 47-41 percent.

Not only is there more money in politics, but it is coming from fewer people.

In 1980, the top 0.01 percent of the population contributed 15 percent of total political contributions. In the 2014 election cycle, the top 100 donors gave nearly as much as everyone else in the country put together. Between 2010 and 2014, 195 donors funded 60 percent of super PAC spending, according to a new report published by the Brennan Center. They aren’t the top 1 percent, or even the top 1 percent of one percent—they’re the top 0.00013 percent.

The radical change in campaign financing has radically increased the power of the most powerful, contributing to the alienation of everyone else.

While this all may sound like a “Feel the Bern” commercial, the effects of Citizens United have been felt on the right as much as on the left.

Take the case of Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate GOP, and a perceived moderate widely loathed by the Tea Party. Sure, McConnell’s Tea Party challenger in the 2014 primary, Matt Bevin, got about $1 million from outside groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project and FreedomWorks. Bevin’s campaign itself raised about $4 million.

But super PACs supporting McConnell raised $10 million, including $300,000 from the country’s largest privately owned coal company, Murray Energy Company. The “Kentuckians for Strong Leadership” super PAC spent $2 million on TV ads alone. Super PAC cash went to a wildly negative ad campaign against Bevin, including not just the usual lies and mischaracterizations, but bogus mailings that looked like official government notices defaming him. All this in addition to the $21 million McConnell raised directly, half of which he spent on the primary. Bevin was crushed.

When you add up spending in McConnell’s general election campaign against a Democrat, it’s estimated that this single election saw more than $100 million spent.

It’s hard to say super PAC money won the day for McConnell, but he seems to think it did: Last year, McConnell started a new super PAC (headed by a former aide, but of course, officially independent) to help Senate Republicans in 2016. It’s already raised $5 million.

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The worst part of Citizens United, in Rumsfeldian terms, is the known unknowns.

In 2012, almost $320 million was spent without disclosure of donors. Only 40 percent of “outside spending” was disclosed in 2012, down from almost 100 percent in 2004. This isn’t just big money: it’s big, dark money.

Dark money in Senate elections has more than doubled between 2010 and 2014, according to the Brennan Center, and the winners of 11 of the most competitive races in 2014 got twice as much of it as the losers. All in all, of the $1 billion that outside spenders put into Senate elections over the last three cycles, $485 million, came from mystery donors.

So despite all the statistics, we have no clear sense of which elections have been swayed by super PACs and anonymous donors. In many cases, we don’t even know who has given what to whom. It’s a mystery, by law.

Short of a Constitutional amendment, there’s not much that can be done.

Ironically, the Supreme Court that will one day hear a challenge to Citizens United will be nominated and confirmed by the politicians that big, dark money swept into power. And even if that Court is persuaded that Citizens United has turned the U.S. into a plutocracy and overturns the case, the problem goes deeper. As the new Brennan Center report indicates, the Court has issued a series of opinions—usually by a 5-4 margin—that have created the current mess.

In fact, the Court would need to go all the way back to 1976’s Buckley v. Valeo when it reached two terrible conclusions. First, that money is a form of speech; and second, that restrictions on that “speech” could only be for extremely narrow reasons, like preventing corruption. A host of terrible Court decisions have sprung forth from these two holdings: ensuring a free and fair election doesn’t justify limiting speech; limiting corporations but not individuals isn’t allowed; money is speech, corporations are people.

Over 40 years, not just six, the Court has taken a laissez faire attitude not seen since the anti-New-Deal Lochner era, hamstringing any efforts to curb the effects of big, dark money. The result has been not just a crop of establishment candidates propped up by billions of corporate dollars, but their radical challengers as well.