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Politics for Sale

Citizens United lets billionaires set the terms of debate.

October 18, 2022

The Guardian reported this week on the efforts of tech billionaire Peter Thiel to influence U.S. politics. It’s an important piece about more than just this election cycle. Thiel’s power shows what Citizens United has done to our democracy.

With three weeks to go until Election Day, outside groups have already spent some $1.3 billion to influence the outcome of the midterms. Thiel’s nearly $30 million in donations account for only a fraction of that nearly unbelievable total, but he represents a very specific kind of influencer. As my colleague Chisun Lee told the Guardian, “Since Citizens United, just 12 mega-donors, eight of them billionaires, have paid one dollar out of every 13 spent in federal elections.” 

Billionaires are sponsoring candidates like prized racehorses. The situation is worrying — exceedingly worrying — but not unprecedented. During the Gilded Age, moneyed corporate interests held incredible sway over our government. Senators who represented the copper-rich state of Montana, for example, were referred to as “representing copper” rather than representing their constituents or the state itself.  Copper magnate William A. Clark bought himself a seat in the Senate by plying the state’s legislators — who, at the time, elected U.S. senators — with massive financial gifts. Once Clark’s corrupt practices were revealed, his 1889 opponent (also, revealingly, a copper magnate) worked to have him removed from Congress. Clark came back in 1901, defeating — you guessed it — another wealthy mine owner to win a Senate seat.

The citizens of Montana finally took their government back in 1912, enacting a law that barred corporations from intervening financially in elections. That law stood for a century, until the Supreme Court struck it down as inconsistent with Citizens United, decided in 2010.

Shortly after the Citizens United ruling, President Obama asked Americans to “imagine the power this will give special interests over politicians.”

We don’t have to imagine any more — we’re living it. Thiel is a particularly alarming example. Through massive donations to super PACs, which Citizens United brought to the fore, he’s using his riches to force his fringe views into mainstream political discourse. He’s supporting candidates who spread the false claim that fraud decided the 2020 election. And his money doesn’t just force a certain type of candidate into the public eye — it also silences Thiel’s ideological opponents. By working to defeat the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump, for example, Thiel has deterred others from speaking out against the former president. Few politicians can afford to ignore Thiel and the threat his money holds.

We don’t have to continue down this road. Many groups, including the Brennan Center, have proposed legislation to limit billionaires’ influence over our elections without running afoul of Citizens United. We don’t need a billionaire’s approval. Like the people of Montana did in 1912, we can exercise the power we have as citizens and take back our government.