How Citizens United Divided Citizens
My daughter has recently been studying U.S. Supreme Court cases in her Civics class and asked me what I thought was the worst decision ever rendered by the nation’s highest court. There certainly have been some doozies. There’s the Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling that defined the notion of “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites that was used to bolsterJim Crow-era segregation before it was finally undone by Brown vs. Board of Education. There was the Buck vs. Bell ruling that permitted the forced sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities and where Justice Oliver Wendall Homes penned in the majority opinion, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” And, of course, you could go with my daughter’s selection of the Dred Scott case which declared that no African-American, whether free man or slave, could ever become a citizen of the United States. And while the blatant institutionalized racism there seems to make Dred Scott the go-to favorite, I think my daughter was expecting me to go with last summer’s Dobbs decision that finally overturned Roe vs. Wade and gave women’s reproductive rights back to the states. But my answer left her expressionless, like she had no clue what the hell I was talking about, a look I must admit she gives me quite often. That’s because people rarely talk about the decision that really should be the winner here. The hands-down choice here is Citizens United.
I’m guessing that right about now many of you through the ether of the internet are giving me just about the same look my daughter did. That’s because most people remain blithely unaware of the dramatic impact Citizens United has had on the fabric of our nation. Yes, those other court decisions were reprehensibly anti-American and allowed the court to wield the heavy hand of institutional prejudice targeted at a particular group, but Citizens United is what makes that type of manipulation of the system possible. It is the vital cog in the wheels of machinery that have undone American democracy itself and replaced it with the cumbersome influence of wealth. It has turned the government for the people, by the people into the mechanism of power for the privileged, stripping away the efficacy and empowerment of the common people and turning it over into the lascivious hands of those who can afford to buy it.
In January of 2010, in a narrow 5–4 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the same right to free speech as people and that this inherently granted them the right to spend unlimited funds on elections. Now, I will note that corporations do, in fact, use “they/them” pronouns, but I’m pretty sure that they do not identify as trans. Want to know why? Because they’re not fucking people, that’s why. Corporations don’t use gender neutral bathrooms, mostly because they don’t urinate and defecate like you and I do. Actually, you know, I take that back. Since the Citizens United ruling, corporations shit on people plenty.
In addition to being preposterously stupid in its desperate attempt to perform prodigious acts of contortion that allowed them to suggest that our founding fathers somehow intended corporations to be endowed with the same inalienable rights conferred on people by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (Dear God- can you imagine a gun-toting corporation????), this decision ripped asunder the floodgates of campaign contributions as wealthy executives were no longer hindered by the restraints of personal campaign donations and could instead use their corporations and Super PAC’s to funnel money into the political system. The result was an unprecedented surge in political influence, not just for the wealthiest of political donors, but for corporate America itself as its own newly-established political entity. And ever since then this country, and our democracy, have never been the same.
If you have found yourself wondering recently which party actually represents the little guy, the common people on the street, that’s because neither of them do. Without backing from corporate interests, serious political candidates simply do not have a pathway to winning office. Every single person running for political office has to take money from them. Shoot, even Bernie Sanders takes money from companies like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. And this leaves our elected officials beholden to the corporate interests that got them into their positions rather than the citizens who actually did the voting.
The impact this has had on the integrity of our democracy cannot be overstated. Our government has become mired in an intractable political inertia as the corporations already profiting from things just the way they are continue to line the pockets of elected officials to keep them that way. The case study on this has been gun control legislation.
Day after heartbreaking day, we as a nation are subjected to the unending tragedy of gun violence in our children’s schools. Unlike any other Westernized nation, we average more than one mass shooting per day. And after each and every one, there is an outcry for meaningful gun control legislation. In fact, over 90% of Americans support at least some form of reasonable gun legislation, such as waiting periods, background checks, and assault weapons bans. But gun manufacturers make far too much money selling guns to a rabid gun-toting populace to allow any of those things to happen. In 2020 alone, the NRA spent $250 million, well over five times that of gun control advocates, buying political influence to assure that no meaningful gun legislation can be passed that would erode their abilities to profit of the our own national epidemic with guns. And I don’t need to tell you what $250 million can buy you.
The Citizens United decision has hijacked our political system and turned it over to those who can afford to pay the price of admission for actual political clout. Unable to match that political capital, the rest of us, the citizens that once formed the backbone of our nation’s democracy, are left powerless to change anything. Ironically, the Supreme Court justified its decision in Citizens United by suggesting that it was protecting the free speech of corporations as expressed in political contributions. But in so doing, what they have really done is stripped away that same free speech, that same ability to have a say in the direction our country is heading, from the actual human beings who make it a country in the first place.
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com