Who Really Benefitted From Citizens United?
In 2009, Ralph Nader published a fantasia titled Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, in which he imagined a group of maverick billionaires banding together to defeat corporate power in America. Declaring themselves “the Meliorists,” these enlightened oligarchs force Walmart to unionize, elect Warren Beatty governor of California, establish single-payer health insurance, raise the minimum wage to a livable salary, and in general breathe life back into liberalism.
In 2012, something like Nader’s utopian scenario has begun to take shape, but with a radically different ideology. Super-rich, hard-right tycoons like Foster Friess (mutual funds), Harold Simmons (chemicals and metals), Bob Perry (home-building), and Sheldon Adelson (casinos) are, through the new vehicle called the super PAC, leveraging their fortunes to seize hold of the political process. Super PACs have made it so easy for millionaires and billionaires to spend unlimited sums on behalf of a particular candidate that these groups are now routinely outspending Republican presidential primary campaigns. Indeed, to a remarkable extent, these oligarch-controlled super PACs are the primary campaign. And, while both parties can create super PACs, so far GOP super PACs are burying their Democratic counterparts. Of the top ten individuals funding super PACs, only one—Jeffrey Katzenberg—is a Democrat.
The very rich funders of Republican super PACs, while hardly unanimous in their views (they support opposing candidates, after all), are reliably anti-Meliorist. Their favored causes tend toward things like repealing health care reform, making abortion illegal, restricting access to contraception, blocking climate change legislation, cutting taxes for the 1 percent, and in general halting America’s moral decay—excepting greed or gambling—and its steady march toward socialism. (Simmons and Adelson have both used the “s” word to describe either President Obama or his policies.)
It’s enough to make you nostalgic for an America in thrall to corporate power. Corporations, after all—the publicly held ones, anyway—must answer to their stockholders. Super-rich crankocrats do not. (Neither do the billionaire altruists in Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us!, but Nader avoids the issue by assuming his semi-fictional billionaires to be wholly benign.)
A corporate takeover of U.S. politics was precisely what many predicted after the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United. But, although the Roberts court recklessly invited corporations to make so-called “independent expenditures” on behalf of individual candidates, most corporations have been reluctant to do so. The Washington Post reports that less than one-quarter of the money given to super PACs in this election cycle came from corporations, and most of these were private. According to Politico, less than 0.5 percent given to “the most active Super PACs” came from publicly traded corporations.
Instead, it’s rich crackpots who opened the floodgates after a lower-court ruling loosened the rules a bit further. Journalist Brooks Jackson, author of Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process, suggests crankocrats may also have been guided inadvertently to super PACs by the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law’s ban on unlimited “soft-money” contributions to national political parties, which survived Citizens United. “A lot of these cranks previously funneled their money through the RNC and DNC, … which at least had the sense to know that they needed to win majorities,” Jackson e-mailed me. “Now the crank money flows through independent groups instead.” Applying some Occupy-Wall-Street-style math, CNN’s Charles Riley calculates that for 2011-2012 the 100 biggest individual donors to super PACs make up only 3.7 percent of the contributors but supply more than 80 percent of the cash. If you give to a super PAC and don’t own a private jet, paint yourself a sign that reads, “WE ARE THE 96.3 PERCENT!”