How would Bernie Sanders's constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United actually work?

That’s pretty much how it is now. E.g., a corporation cannot vote, but can own property.

The Supreme Court already believes that the state has a compelling interest in controlling the corrupting influence of money in politics, and that some laws regulating the spending of money towards the promotion or denunciation of a particular candidate or party are constitutional. So any amendment would have to be more specific than this.

I’d be surprised to learn that Bernie Sanders would be willing to endorse any particular language for an amendment, because I don’t think this is a serious idea. It’s just a political totem that is useful for a portion of the Left these days. If Sanders really understood the issue, he wouldn’t use rhetoric like “The Supreme Court essentially declared that corporations have the same rights as natural-born human beings,” which is what his website currently says about Citizens United.

Just as water always finds a level, plutocrats will find loopholes. Remember when “soft money” ads would use a fig leaf of “Call Senator Smith and tell him to stop being such a terrible, soft-on-crime, surrender-to-the-terrorists tax-and-spender”? I actually think it’s good that they don’t have to play that game any more. Whereas if something like this is passed, but it doesn’t shut down FOX News (or MSNBC), then the plutocrats will pool their money to buy a bunch of “news networks” (or the minimum legal facsimile).

I would rather limit the power of plutocrats by simply limiting their *money *through steeply progressive taxation. This does not even require a constitutional amendment (a high hurdle), just federal law. It wouldn’t pass right now, obviously, but it should be on the wish list for the next time Democrats get control of Congress and the presidency simultaneously.

I don’t necessarily agree, but I think that’s a much smarter analysis.

Among the reasons I think the Left is deeply mistaken to have adopted Citizen United as the chief example of all things wrong with corporate power is that elections aren’t even the main place that corporate power matters. It matters much more in the legislative process. And even more than that in the regulatory process. Then there’s the iron triangle.

You could have completely publicly-funded elections with a ban on all election-related political speech other than individuals standing on the sidewalk, and you’d reduce corporate influence in Washington D.C. by like 10%. And you wouldn’t even get there by overturning Citizens United. You’d have to rewrite two hundred years of free speech and corporate law precedent.

Right, good points–and thanks for the kudos.

You can take obscene levels of money out of politics, as a broad and general rule, by legally restricting how much money may be spent on political advocacy. That’s the basic principle. The details can be complex but the reality is that other countries have successfully done it, and it’s essential to preserving democracy. It’s not just a matter of monetary restrictions, it’s also the aggregation of lots of smaller things like providing free broadcast time on national networks to recognized spokesmen for major parties – all in the name of leveling the playing field and letting all voices be heard. It’s just fundamentally misguided to think that it “restricts rich people’s freedom of expression” if you have a law that says, for instance, that no one can spend more than “x” million dollars on promoting this candidate or that public policy issue. Because the alternative is saying that no one except billionaires can effectively have a voice on that issue.

You’re correct in your earlier observation that the wealthy can own media and in many other ways will always have a great deal of say in the political process. Some of that can be dealt with through rules about concentration of media ownership (which are presently inadequate to the point of non-existence) and rules about truth and accuracy in news reporting (also lacking). You’ll never be able to completely counter the inordinate influence of the wealthy, but the answer isn’t to throw in the towel and say to the moneyed interests, “oh, go ahead, we give up – just take over everything run the place yourselves”. That’s not democracy. Yet in effect that’s exactly what’s happened.

It really is. Nowhere else on earth is there such an immensely high financial barrier to entry to national politics as in the US. Lowering those financial barriers promotes diversity of candidates, decouples them from moneyed interests, and lets more voices be heard, which is in the interests of a healthy democracy but contrary to the interests of the wealthy, so it doesn’t happen. Nowhere else on earth do politicians audition in front of billionaires and seek their approval for political office, as Republican candidates did when they flew to Vegas to kiss Sheldon Adelson’s ass, or attended the Koch brothers’ private and mostly secret political convention so the Kochs could select the best corrupt shill for their personal needs. So it’s no surprise that nowhere else on earth does the whole political system in its formidable entirety cater with such zealous loyalty to the needs of corporations and the wealthy.

Except that Adelson and the Koch brothers actually *lose *most of the races they throw money behind. It is an arrogant and myopic view shared by most of my fellow progressives that the hoi polloi just blindly get led around by the noses by whichever plutocrats spend the most money on advertising. And many of these are the same people who preach that we should let the wisdom of the “common man” guide us! (Personally, I don’t buy either view: I am an elitist progressive who nevertheless does not believe people are so easily manipulated by advertising as others think–and I have empirical evidence to support that, as noted in all the failures of super-PACs to buy elections.)

You make a straw man of me by saying I advocate simply “giving up”, when I stated explicitly that while I find it pointless and counterproductive to try to play whack-a-mole with rich people’s use of their money to express their opinions, I am all for actually* taking their money away* through steeply progressive taxation.

Neither of those overly simplistic statements fairly represents the real world. Of course not every single candidate the Kochs support will win, and not every single issue they lobby for with billions in dark money will go their way. And a good thing, too, because we’d be living in a truly nightmarish society if they did. But my point is that their influence makes enough such issues go their way that the plutocracy I just finished describing is the contemporary American reality, and it festers in the US as it does no place else in the world.

I’m sure that the Kochs and their ilk weren’t backing Obama in 2012, but they were part of the lobbying that thwarted the ACA and helped scuttle the public option; they were part of the electioneering that brought in a Republican Congressional majority in the midterms; they were part of just about every pro-wealthy and pro-corporate piece of legislation enacted in recent decades. They were major influences in the election of Brownback in Kansas and Walker in Wisconsin, the latter of course now a viable presidential candidate, all thanks to the Kochs. In this election cycle they are said to have upwards of $900 million to spend on electioneering and issues advocacy. And this is their view of the world – their end game:
The Kochs’ VP for Policy and Research described an ideal society where … [there would be] no Medicare, no Medicaid, no food or water safety protections, no national park system, no public education or student loan programs, no public roads and bridges. They would not have taxes on corporate profits or the wealthy at all. There would be no consumer, homeowner, or worker protections from Wall Street banks, big energy companies, pharmaceutical giants, health insurance companies, fast food companies.

This is the Koch agenda, laid out clearly and unequivocally at the Koch secret meeting in June, the agenda that Mitch McConnell found so inspiring. This agenda is so stark that since the news of his attendance at the conference came out, McConnell has either downplayed the meeting, contradicted what he said at the meeting – for example, here on the minimum wage, or just refused to answer the question
I’m not a religious person, but God help us all!

Your other statement about the hoi polloi just being too darned smart to be blindly get led around by the noses is just simply wrong and naive. It’s effectively saying that one of America’s largest industries – advertising and PR – is ineffective and a complete waste of money. But that’s just not true. It’s the reason advertisers find it very effective and profitable to spend billions on every form of public persuasion that they can corner. The Kochs are not spending $900 million this election cycle because they’re stupid and like throwing their money away. And voters don’t vote for shills for the plutocracy because they love the plutocracy, they vote for these assholes because they believe it’s in their own interest to do so. Ask most Americans about government involvement in health care or single-payer health insurance, or ask them about the facts on climate change or fossil fuels. Almost everything they believe on contentious public policy issues like these is wrong – and I mean factually, demonstrably wrong – and strangely aligned with corporate interests.

There are many problems with the wisdom of the common man, primarily the lack of it. As Churchill famously said, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other ones that have been tried from time to time. But democracy does manage to stagger along in most countries. We can’t make the common man any smarter, but what we can do and must do as a society is put systems in place so that the average voter is reasonably and fairly informed, and most importantly, to ensure that the average voter is not misinformed by reckless and self-serving propagandizing.

wolfpup: Do I understand correctly that you claim that every other major democracy has laws that forbid private individuals from spending over a certain threshold of money to share their political opinions even outside the context of support for a particular candidate in an election?

If that’s not your claim, then I don’t see what any of this has to do with the Koch brothers spending money to lobby for and against particular policies and legislation. If that is your claim, I’d be curious to see you substantiate it.

In the OECD, there are 18 nations with limits on political spending, of which 12 also limit contributions. There are also 12 which have no limits, and where it gets interesting is when one examines the political environment in the context of overall practice and culture – for example, the predominance of public financing, public broadcasting, and the absence of the uniquely American worship of the right of the almighty dollar to buy and own anything including politicians and the management of public opinion. Not to mention the existence of malignant enablers of political corruption like super-PACs and donor organizations, which are essentially money laundering schemes. This says it well:
In these places, there are no limits on contributions, and no limits on what candidates can spend. But that doesn’t mean that these countries’ wealthy are writing million-euro checks to parliamentary candidates. It’s important to keep in mind that the role money is able to play in politics is determined by multiple factors, many of which serve to hold down both contributions and spending, even when the law doesn’t impose limits. For instance, most of the countries in the OECD have traditions of stricter party discipline than we do, and that makes members of the legislature somewhat interchangeable, which in turn can reduce the utility of buying yourself a few of them.

Even more importantly, TV advertising is the single largest expense for most American congressional candidates, while in many other countries candidates are either forbidden from advertising on television or given free TV time. In most places there’s substantial public funding of campaigns, and candidates are often forbidden from campaigning until a relatively short period before election day. Put all that together, and you have elections where, even if it would technically be legal to rain huge amounts of money down on candidates, nobody considers it worth their while (for instance, here’s a nice description of the relative quiet of a German campaign). So the idea of someone spending two or three million dollars to get a seat in the national legislature, the way American House candidates routinely do, would seem absurd.

Indeed. That their agenda is horrific, I do not dispute. But you seem to miss that there is no amount of money they could spend that would sell this agenda sufficiently to get a majority of Americans to vote for it. They could spend $900 *billion *instead of $900 million and it wouldn’t be enough.

You also have yet to explain how you can let billionaires keep their billions (something I am against), yet not let them use those billions to express their opinions far and wide.

Another term for political advocacy is ‘petitioning the government for redress of grievances’.

Also, if it is the mere presence of big money that corrupts elections, why are some groups limited but others aren’t?


Your post didn’t actually answer my question, which makes me think you may be missing some of the subtleties here.

There are many different kinds of campaign finance restrictions. Generally speaking, from most narrow to most broad, they are: limits on money given directly to candidates, limits on independent advertising about candidates near an election, limits on advertising about political issues near an election, and limits on advertising about political issues ever.

Your noting the Koch Bros. influence on policy generally implicated that broadest limit, which is why I asked specifically “Do I understand correctly that you claim that every other major democracy has laws that forbid private individuals from spending over a certain threshold of money to share their political opinions even outside the context of support for a particular candidate in an election?”

Are we going to say the Kochs can’t spend money but the NRDC and UAW can?

Has anyone proposed that?

Hmmm. Are the UAW and NRDC “for-profit corporations, limited liability
10 companies, or other private entities established for busi-
11 ness purposes or to promote business interests under the
12 laws of any state, the United States, or any foreign state”?

If not then, yes, the proposed legislation proposes that.

Have you not noticed the inexorable drifting of American politics further and further to the right as the years and the decades go by?

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” – Chinese proverb
“How does an IT project get to be three years late? One day at a time.” – Frederick P. Brooks

As I said, you can’t eliminate the inherent advantages that the wealthy have, and you shouldn’t try. Money does buy things, after all, and within reason that’s great. The problem arises when money in overwhelming amounts essentially usurps democracy and controls a political system to its own advantage and to the detriment of the general population. In principle the problem could be solved by fundamental structural changes to the political system, making it more like the systems of those other countries I mentioned. But those aren’t realistic, and so you do what is realistic: you enact specific laws to limit the corruption of the political process by big money. Many countries have such laws, but some find that they don’t need them, for the reasons already discussed. Clearly, the US does.

I’ll draw an analogy with health care laws. It’s often been mentioned that most countries that have universal health care also have a parallel private tier that a small percentage of the population uses. It’s been noted that such a private tier is illegal in Canada. Why have such a law when other countries don’t?

Simple, and I’ve mentioned it several times. Because Canada is part of a North American culture that is driven and dominated by the US and the dominating presence of the US private health insurance market. If private insurance is allowed all hell would break loose and the private insurers would so dominate the system that all the best doctors and hospitals would gravitate to the big money of the private insurers, and the very existence of the public system would be in jeopardy. This is not the case in Europe, for reasons of remoteness, culture, and other historical factors. The UK medical profession is strongly supportive of the NHS, for example.

The moral here is that if there are sociopolitical factors that you can’t change in the immediate future, then the next best thing is to have laws that limit their undesirable effects.

No, I fully understand the nuances and what Citizens United, for example, was about. But as already indicated upthread, the net balance of the political dynamic is a consequence of a complex mix of factors including laws, culture, and sociopolitical factors. I don’t presume to claim that any particular system is superior to any other, but I do assert that the American political dynamic as presently structured is overwhelmingly dominated by money and that that fact, in and of itself, has very damaging consequences.

Here’s just a small counter-example that comes to mind. Canada limits both political contributions and election spending, but completely aside from that, there is also a robust public radio and television broadcasting system. CBC Radio is commercial-free, but during election season all five of the major parties (two of which are marginal and have no hope of ever forming a government) are granted equal amounts of airtime for their respective spokesmen to convey their messages. They all get it, and for free, but none can get any more by paying for it. It’s the ideas that dominate, not the purchased noise and shiny objects. The parties can and do also buy time on commercial stations, but the CBC Radio model is kind of the ideal I’m describing.

Consider for a moment an absurdly inverted scenario: a televised debate where candidates earned their appearances by monetary contributions, and got to speak as long as they wanted provided that they were willing to pay for it by the minute. (Because, hey, money is speech, right, conservatives?) And how about the candidates get to own the moderators by competing bids for them in an auction? Ridiculous? Sure it’s ridiculous. Yet that’s exactly how the overall political system works as it’s currently structured.

This is the problem I see with this rhetoric. It’s feel-good bloviation, but it seems thoughtless.

I like Bernie. I may vote for Bernie in the primary. But, to me, Larry Lessig’s “Citizen Equality” (YouTube, 38 minutes) arguments, in which he specifically attacks the “funding primary” and advocates public financing, are more convincing.

There’s a logical fallacy there of some sort. Suppose they lose 70% of races that they spend money on. Does that mean their money was wasted, or has no effect? Not at all. Maybe 95% of those races would have gone against them had they not been involved.

The best argument against your position (already made in this thread) is that the Koch brothers are not idiots. If spending $900 million to influence politics had no effect, they would not spend it.
That said, I agree that this is not an easy problem to solve. There are two competing interests, both of which are (or at least should be) of fundamental import to our national health:
(1) free speech
(2) robust democracy with an informed and engaged electorate

I think those two interests definitely collide when it comes to issues of campaign finance. And that means that fully supporting one at least partially corrodes the other. Which means that a line has to be drawn somewhere which won’t be perfect-in-all-ways. And just saying “well, you can’t do anything, because free speech is MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYTHING ELSE EVER” is not some kind of automatic trump card.