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The Upside of Citizens United: A Wakeup Call That Our Elections Are For Sale

Citizens United didn't change campaign politics that much, but it did expose how unsavory the nexus of politics and money have become.

It's the two-year anniversary of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court case that gave corporate the same free speech rights as people—including unlimited independent political spending.

Since then, there's been a good amount of pushback from progressives, worried that the decision could give small groups disproportionate political influence. Stephen Colbert has set up a mock superPAC to expose the corruption of campaign finance. Montana's Supreme Court just upheld a ban on corporate political expenditures in the state's elections. Activists across the country have planned events today and tomorrow, pushing for a constitutional amendment overturning the decision.

Yet there have been a handful of myth-busting pieces telling us to relax. The Atlantic's E.D. Kain wrote this week that Stephen Colbert (and, by extension, the media) have just as much political influence and money as corporations, and that "[m]oney flows regardless of whatever leaky, legal dams we erect. Closing one loophole merely opens another." In a interview, First Amendment lawyer and Citizens United attorney Floyd Abrams also insisted the decision has been misunderstood. Some have called into question the reach of campaign spending after a certain point, citing the failed campaigns of millionaires like Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman. Others assert that voting restrictions dictate election outcomes far more than a campaign's paid propanda.

These arguments only highlight how unsavory the nexus of politics and money have become—even before the ruling.

It'd be tempting to assert that with the rise of SuperPACs, political actors will be increasingly free of responsibility for the spread of misinformation. "The King of Bain," the 29-minute documentary produced by a pro-Newt Gingrich superPAC to criticize Mitt Romney, was peppered with inaccuracies and exaggerations—and officially, since it's an "independent" organization, it's not Newt's fault. But SuperPACs aren't the only ones who are lying with little consequence. An ad produced by Romney's presidential campaign in November blatantly took President Obama's words out of context.

Furthermore, this level of incendiary political attacks has been going on for decades. There's not much difference between the political environment that produced "The King of Bain" and the similarly slimy anti-John Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth documentary, or even Barack Obama's thirty minute commercial in 2008.

The liberal media was in a tizzy over reports that billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson cut a $5 million check to a SuperPAC supporting Newt Gingrich, but as Abrams points out, he could do that regardless of the Supreme Court's ruling. Post-Citizens United, corporate donors' spending ceiling is unlimited and they have more anonymity; still, superPACs do have to reveal their benefactors. All things considered, campaign finance is pretty much as corrupt as its always been.

What Citizens United really did was put campaign finance—a topic previously reserved for wonks and pundits—onto the national stage, in the headlines, and on the nightly news. The case has become synonymous with money's enormous influence on politics. For progressives, Citizens United is a gift: It has provided the Occupy Wall Street set with a potent and tangible symbol for corrupt democracy, the kind only a high-profile Supreme Court case can provide.

Think of how momentous laws and decisions have affected other kinds of activism. The pro-choice movement has had a hard time inciting outrage over states' hundreds of little abortion restrictions—but imagine how fast people would rally if Roe v. Wade was about to be overturned. The open web movement existed long before SOPA, but it was the threat of legislation that kicked us into high gear, with impressive results. Similarly, Citizens United is a graceful shorthand for our deeply problematic election system, the kind of shorthand that every effective activist movement needs. When political analysts insist that the decision itself isn't so bad, we should be compelled to ask, "Compared to what?"

Photo via (cc) Flickr user sharoncubo.

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