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Dr. David Tomkin
How Citizens United Has Negatively affected the United States’ Citizens
It seems as though each year more money is spent on politics than the last. According to
the Center for Responsive Politics, spending on political campaigns for the 2012 presidential
elections is likely to exceed six billion dollars, which is a staggering 50 percent increase from
what was spent during the 2008 campaign cycle. Unlike the natural growth we have come to
expect every election, however, this more recent increase in electioneering expenditures stems
largely from an increase in the amounts money given by very wealthy individuals and
corporations to supposedly unaffiliated political actions committees (PACs), and has been spent
mostly on running mudslinging campaign ads against a candidate’s opposition. These
contributions simply wouldn’t have been possible four years ago. Before the Supreme court
ruled, on the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, that corporations are people,
that money is free speech, and that it is a violation of the First Amendment to forbid corporations
from donating to political causes, there were limits on what funds could be donated to whom.
Those limitations are now gone, and, as a result, our political system has suffered immensely.
Although the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the First Amendment in the Citizens United vs.
Federal Election Commission case has a just rationale, it will result in an unhealthy increase in
the amount of money spent on politics, which will lead to both negative political and social
Before discussing the negative affects of the Supreme Court’s ruling it is imperative that 2
we understand what the ruling actually does. The 5-4 Citizens United decision essentially
overturns key aspects of 2002 McCain-Fiengold Act which had previously limited the amounts
of money organizations, individuals and corporations could funnel to one candidate’s agenda;
previously groups could give large amounts of money to a candidate’s political party—although
not to the actual candidate—and the party could, and would, pass said funds on to the candidate.
(WiseGeek).The Citizens United ruling, however, allows for corporations and wealthy
individuals to donate as much money as they want to Political Action Committees (PACs).
Despite the inequalities that arise when richer companies and individuals have more say than
their humbler counterparts as Glenn Greenwald writes, “there are very real First Amendment
interests implicated by laws which bar entities from spending money to express political
viewpoints” (Greenwald). A PAC, as the name implies, is merely a committee that supports a political viewpoint.
It’s worth noting that PACs existed long before the Citizens United ruling, in the form of
lobbying groups that supported specific causes. The major change that has occurred since the
Citizens United ruling is that now people—and corporations which in some regards are
considered people by the ruling—now donate seemingly unlimited funds to a given PAC. These
enormous amounts of money have given rise to so-called super PACs which are different from
the PACs that existed previously in that they support a single candidate as opposed to an
ideology and any candidate whose view are in line with it.
A major concern raised by the ruling arises from the fact that there are currently no
restrictions on who can run a super PAC. The treasurer for Mitt Romney’s super PAC, for
example, was the general counsel for his 2008 campaign. This is problematic because it directly
conflicts with the spirit of the law: how can Romney's super PAC, Restore Our Future, and other 3
similar organizations remain independent if they are run by people who are known confidants of
a particular candidate?
A further problem with super PACs is that although they are theoretically independent
they have the power to run express advocacy advertisements—to make statements like “elect this
guy,” or “defeat so and so”—that directly benefit a single candidate. While super PACs are not
allowed to directly correspond with a candidate, they can use their enormous bank accounts to
fund campaigns that directly align with a particular candidate's campaign strategy, and which
preach a candidate's exact viewpoints and ideologies.
There are differing opinions about how powerful of a tool campaign ads are. One thing is
certain, though: if mudslinging political advertisements didn’t work then super PACs wouldn’t
be paying for them. Even if such advertisements stimulate political activity—an argument made
by some—the manner in which they are being utilized by super PACs is still harmful to our
political system as a whole. We can see why when we look at recent Republican primaries. “In
those 11 election contests, the Romney campaign spent $11 million on television advertising.
The pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, with its massive, unregulated contributions
spent another $21 million. The super PAC alone spent more than the TV budgets of Romney
rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, plus the message spending of the super PACs backing
them” (Overby). The ads run by Restore Our Future flooded the airwaves with attack ads
directed at Romney’s opponents. The ads were much more focused on throwing Romney's
opponents under the bus than they were on promoting him, or on informing potential voters of
his stances. What's worse? It’s working. Romney has won in Nevada, Florida, and Michigan
thanks partially to Restore Our Future’s attack ads. What’s astonishing is that only in Maine, a 4
state where no candidate advertised, has Romney won a primary without relying on the use of
Looking at Iowa gives us a better understanding of specifically how these mudslinging ad
campaigns have affected the primaries thus far. In Iowa Restore Our Future only ran ads
attacking Newt Gingrich. Although the ads prevented Gingrich from winning any delegates, they
were not powerful enough to help Romney win, and he ended up losing to Santorum. This is,
most likely, because while the ad focused enough on Gingrich's negative qualities to leave a
impact people, it did not focus enough on promoting Romney's positive characteristics.
Restore Our Future used these same strategies in other states, which is how Romney’s super PAC
has been able to sway elections: by bombarding potential voters with negative messages about
his opponents Romney’s super PAC turns his opponents into non-factors.
Spending money in order to spread negative messages about his opponents has allowed
Romney to win delegates he otherwise may not have won. None of this would be possible
without the millions spent on attack ads. In very literally terms the Citizens United decision has
allowed elections to be bought: when super PACs spend the money necessary to indoctrinate
voters for the candidates they’re supporting win. It’s very plausible that without Restore Our
Future Romney would not have the lead he currently holds over Rick Santorum and Newt
Gingrich. Yet thanks to his super PAC Mitt Romney has since emerged as race’s front-runner,
and will most likely be the republican presidential candidate.
Although recent primaries seem to show that negative campaign ads are harmful to the
democratic process—because their appeals bias voters—some have progressed arguments that
this isn’t the case. Ted Brader, a political science professor at the University of Michigan,
believes that such adverts “can promote democratically desirable behavior”(Brader 388). His 5
studies show that political advertising actually aids the democratic process in a number of ways.
Positive ads—ads that endorse a candidate—for example increase voter participation in elections
“voters exposed to these appeals show greater interest in the campaign, and are more willing to
vote”(Brader 397). This essentially means that an increase in spending on positive political
advertisements will result in a subsequent increase in voter participation which is good for our
democracy. More interesting, and relevant, is what Brader found when looking at negative, or
attack, ads—the kind ads that Restore Our Future to has relied on to help Romney. Brader’s
study showed that attack ads also increase political involvement: “there is evidence that [these]
appeals provoke information seeking, at least in related news stories and perhaps in the self
conscious desire to learn more”(Brader 401). Brader’s work shows that attack ads are also
beneficial for our political system on the because rather than strictly following the attack ads’
instructions voters tend to do more research on the issues to determine their true views. If this is
the case it would mean that even the recent increase in the number of attack ads, due to increased
political spending spurred by the Citizens United ruling, has had a positive impact on our
Unfortunately there are a couple of problems with this idea. The first is the manner in
which political advertising polarizes voters. Brader’s study also found that political ads tended to
polarize voters; once a voter has decided on his or her stances seeing both positive and negative
ads caused voters to become less likely to explore other options. This is potentially harmful
because political polarization inhibits bi-partisan cooperation, which—as we have seen in recent
history, think of the debt ceiling debacle—can cause political stalemate.
Another problem with attack ads—especially the ones put on by Restore Our Future and
other super PACs—is that they are rarely completely true. Restore Our Future, for example, ran 6
an ad in Florida (and is currently running it in Georgia) claiming that Gingrich “co-sponsored a
bill with Nancy Pelosi that would have given $60 million a year to a U.N. program supporting
China’s brutal one-child policy”(PolitiFact).Parts of the ad deceiving: the ad implies that Pelosi
and Gingrich worked together closely on the bill, when in reality 144 House members “cosponsored” the bill. Other parts of the ad are outright lies: “the bill did propose money for the
United Nations Population Fund. But [part of] the bill prohibits using any of the funds for the
performance of involuntary sterilization or abortion or to coerce any person to accept family
planning. That is the exact opposite of the language in Restore Our Future’s ad about
Gingrich”( PolitiFact). Restore Our Future is by no means the only super PAC guilty of this:
every super PAC makes use of dishonest ads. It makes sense when we think about it. The PACs
are supported by corporations and individuals who appear to be willing to do anything necessary
to win, even if it’s immoral.
Perhaps the most concerning result of the Citizens United ruling is the social impact of
the increase in political spending. Laura Onken, of Georgetown University, recently published a
paper that compared recent political spending to a prisoner’s dilemma. A prisoner’s dilemma is
an economic situation where the dominant strategy for both parties, the strategy that ensures they
are best off, results in a situation that is worse for everyone. A classic prisoner’s dilemma is a
arms race. Take the US and Russia, for example. When deciding whether to produce nuclear
arms the US decides that if Russia chooses not to produce nuclear weapons they (the US) are
better off if they produce nukes. Even if Russia decides to build a nuclear arsenal, however, it is
still in the best interest of the US to produce weapons. Thus regardless of how the other side acts
each side will independently decide to produce nuclear weapons. Weapon production is therefor
the dominant strategy. Although each side is better off for manufacturing nukes society as a 7
whole is worse off. Yet if the sides collaborated and no one produced nuclear weapons this would
have been socially optimal, and would have benefitted both parties.
Onken asserts that this is exactly what’s currently happening in regards to political
spending, we’re currently at an “equilibrium level of political spending beyond what is socially
optimal”(Onken 518). Because the dominant strategy for both parties is to spend money on
negative ad campaigns each super PAC spends millions of dollars on mudslinging. This has a
high social cost insofar as the resources that are spent on advertising could be better spent
elsewhere—with no negative affect on the campaigns—if neither side ran negative
advertisements. The companies and wealthy individuals donating to super PACs could invest
their funds and efforts elsewhere; instead of producing way more ads than are necessary they
could be working on other, more beneficial, things(addressing the relatively high level of
unemployment for example).
Although the political impact of the Citizens United ruling is more direct than the
social impact, both realms have suffered considerably. The first amendment must always be
upheld, but there are some ways that the ruling can be beneficially modified. In regards to the
social impact for example, a prisoner’s dilemma has a better outcome if the parties understand
what one and other are doing, so perhaps implementing a full disclosure clause could reduce the
audacious amount currently being spent on mudslinging. So perhaps we should explore options
to limit the amount spent on negative campaign ads. But it would be completely wrong to outlaw
these ad campaigns. Sometimes free speech is harmful, but freedom of speech is one of the
things America is founded on, one of the things that makes this land so great. In spite of the
overwhelmingly negative affects of the Citizens United ruling it was a good decision because it
upheld the fundamental right to free speech. 8
Brader, Ted. "Striking a Responsive Chord: How Political Ads Motivate and Persuade Voters by
Appealing to Emotions." American Journal of Political Science 49.2 (2005): 388405. ABI/INFORM Global; ProQuest Research Library. Web. 10 Mar. 2012. Greenwald, Glenn “What the Supreme Court Got Right” 22 Jan 2010. Salon. 29 Feb 2012 <
http://www.salon.com/2010/01/22/citizens_united/> Onken, Laura. “Game Theory and Citizens United” The Georgetown Journal of Law & Public
Policy 9.2 517- 541 ABI/INFORM Global; ProQuest Research Library Web. 10 Mar. 2012 Overby, Peter. “Romney’s Wins have come with negative messages”6 Mar 2012. National Public
Radio. 7 Mar 2012 < http://m.npr.org/story/148006655> Stirgus, Eric “Newt supported China's one-child policy, Super PAC says.” 15 Feb.
2012PolitiFact. Ed. Jim Tharpe.8 Mar. 2012.
<http://www.politifact.com/georgia/statements/2012/feb/15/restore-our-future/newt-supportedchinas-one-child-policy-super-pac-s/> WiseGeek. 2006. Wise Geek: Clear Answers for Common Questions. 8 Mar 2012 <
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- Spring '07
- Writing, Political campaign, political action committees, Citizens United, Barry Goldwater, Negative campaigning