March 5, 2011
The Impact of Citizens United: Anti-Incumbent or Pro-Business?
Here at Akron, we recently had the privilege of having Prof. Bradley Smith come to talk to us about the impact of Citizens United on the most recent elections. I was asked to comment on his remarks, and in preparation for this Brad was kind enough to direct me to a recent opinion piece that he published in the Wall Street Journal that set forth a number of the main points of his talk--you can find that piece here. I ended up framing my comments in terms of a possible progressive response to Prof. Smith's conclusion that Citizens United primarily benefits challengers of either party. I set forth my comments below, after the links to a couple of recent news items that may also be relevant.
In his Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Prof. Bradley Smith declares that when it comes to all the liberal wailing and gnashing of teeth over Citizens United, “none of the doomsday predictions has come true.” Prof. Smith does not argue, as some have, that Citizens United did not impact the elections. He attributes as much as 11% of the increased political spending in this past election to Citizens United. And in response to the assertion that Citizens United has contributed to a power shift, he says: “Exactly.” However, Prof. Smith tells a story of Citizens United having “helped to level, not tilt, the playing field,” and that the decision “will continue to benefit whichever faction is out of power.” In other words, Citizens United is an anti-incumbency success story.
I think there is another story—one that better fits the facts that confront us today. The story of Citizens United that I want to tell is the story of yet another nail in the coffin of middle-class America; a story of big business and the super-rich adding yet another bullet to their arsenal—and using it with utmost efficiency. To set the backdrop for this story, let me quote a bit from the introduction to “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class,” by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson:
[R]ising inequality is only the clearest indicator of an economic transformation that has touched virtually every aspect of American’s standard of living. From the erosion of job security to the declining reach of health insurance, from the rising toll of home foreclosures to the growing number of personal bankruptcies, from the stagnation of upward social mobility to the skyrocketing of personal debt, the American economy that has delivered so much to the fortunate [between 2001 and 2006, the share of income gains going to the top 1% was over 53%] has worked much less well for most Americans.
Against this backdrop, what have the newly-elected set out to do? They have set their sights on abolishing Dodd-Frank for the recently bailed-out Wall Street bankers who have recovered very nicely indeed to rake in record profits this year while Main Street continues to deal with unemployment and foreclosures. They have set their sights on repealing universal health care, a result much appreciated by the free-spending health-care industry. They plan on cutting much of the social safety net so they can continue to give tax breaks to the wealthy. (Moody’s recently estimated that the House Republicans’ proposed cuts would cost 700,000 jobs by 2012.) And they have set their sights on busting the unions that serve so much of Main Street.
If this were in fact merely an anti-incumbency story, it would not be so one-sided and consistent with the 30-year trend toward an American oligarchy. Seemingly every change proposed by the newly elected favors big business and the super-rich, and places an even greater burden on the already struggling middle class. And it is precisely these groups—big business and the wealthy—that liberals feared would stand to benefit the most from Citizens United. I do not see anything to suggest that in the next election the increased spending allowed by Citizens United will be targeted against these newly-elected pro-business representatives merely because they are incumbents. There may be a voter backlash, because Citizens United is after all just a piece of the puzzle. And the general corporate practice of backing the expected winners, regardless of ideology, should continue. But to think that we will be talking about an anti-incumbent Citizens United effect next election strikes me as unlikely. While Citizens United extended its ruling to unions, a recent report noted that of the top 10 outside spenders in the 2010 elections, 7 were right-wing groups and 3 were labor unions.
So I would say, no—the story of Citizens United is not an anti-incumbency story. The story of Citizens United is a pro-big business story. And if you are one of those who believe our democracy is intended to serve all, rather than just an elite few, then it may well be fair to say that the doomsday predictions regarding Citizens United have in fact very much come true.