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Citizens United has Destroyed America: Why Is Nobody Talking About It?
If America is to recover any semblance of meaningful democracy in our country, we must cut out the cancer of big money in our political system by overturning Citizens United…
According to Talkers Magazine, the “Bible of the Talk Radio Industry,” I talk with around 6 million people every week on my nationally syndicated call-in radio/TV show. What I’m hearing, increasingly (I’ve been doing this program for 20 years now), is frustration bordering on despair about the inability of America to get basic, necessary things done.
Why is it, people ask, that we can’t do anything about guns amidst all these mass shootings? Or homelessness? Or affordable healthcare and education? Why are we moving so slowly on climate change? How did social media get excused from responsibility for its own content and then become overrun by Putin bots and Nazis?
And why do we let the billionaires who own social media (along with all the other billionaires) get away with only paying an average 3.2% income tax when the rest of us are making up for it by paying through the nose? Why can’t Congress pass a simple budget or raise taxes enough to stop running deficits?
What happened, people ask, that caused America’s politicians — in the years after JFK — to stop listening to the people who elect them? Why is it that (other than tax cuts), when Republicans have power or the ability to block Democrats efforts, nothing gets done?
The simple and tragic answer to all these questions comes back to a single root cause: money in politics. Or, to be more specific, Republicans on the Supreme Court having legalized political bribery (and, thus, functional ownership) of judges and legislators, both federal and state.
In 1976, in response to an appeal by uber-rich New York Republican Senator James Buckley, the Court ruled that wealthy people in politics couldn’t be restrained from using their own money to overwhelm their political opponents. They then went a step farther and struck down other limitations on billionaires using their own money to “independently” promote the campaigns of politicians they like.
Their rationale was that restrictions on rich people buying political office “necessarily reduce the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of the exploration, and the size of the audience reached. This is because virtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money.”
In other words, for morbidly rich people to have “free speech,” they must be able to spend as much money on politicking as they want. If you don’t have millions or billions, your free speech is pretty much limited to how loud you can yell: this was a decision almost entirely of, by, and for the morbidly rich.
Two years later, in 1978, four Republicans on the Court went along with a decision written by Republican Lewis Powell himself in declaring that corporations are “persons” entitled to human rights under the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the Constitution), including the First Amendment right of free speech.
And free speech, as they’d established two years earlier, meant the ability to shovel money into political campaigns. Effective in April of 1978, elections could go to whoever spent the most money.
Democrats largely ignored the rulings (until 1992). They hadn’t been the party of the rich since the 1920s, and, with a third of American workers in a union, those unions provided plenty of money for political campaigns.
But Republicans — specifically, the 1980 Reagan campaign — jumped forward with both hands out for all the cash they could grab. The gift they offered wealthy people who supported them? Tax cuts, even if they drove the deficit sky high.
There were still quite a few campaign restrictions in place in 2010, when five Republicans on the Supreme Court did it again, striking down literally hundreds of state and federal laws and regulations by doubling-down on their assertion that “money is free speech” and “corporations are persons with human rights.”
Thus, we can track many of the worst aspects of America’s political dysfunction to these three corrupt Supreme Court decisions, as I detail in The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America and The Hidden History of American Oligarchy.
Prior to the Court’s Citizens United decision, for example, there was a bipartisan consensus in Congress that climate change was caused by burning fossil fuels and that we should do something about it, as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse so eloquently documents.
John McCain campaigned for president on a platform of doing something about climate change: he was the lead cosponsor of the Climate Stewardship Act, which had multiple other Republican cosponsors. At the time, he said:
“While we cannot say with 100 percent confidence what will happen in the future, we do know the emission of greenhouse gases is not healthy for the environment. As many of the top scientists through the world have stated, the sooner we start to reduce these emissions, the better off we will be in the future.”
The Clean Air Planning Act was supported by Republican Senators Lamar Alexander, Lindsay Graham, and Susan Collins. Republican Senator Olympia Snow was the lead cosponsor of the Global Warming Reduction Act of 2007. Multiple Republicans supported the Low Carbon Economy Act and the Clean Air/Climate Change Act.
In 2009, Republicans supported the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act and the Waxman-Markey carbon cap-and-trade proposal. Maine Republican Susan Collins was the lead cosponsor of the Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal Act, a bill that would have imposed a fee on burning fossil fuels. At the time, she said:
“In the United States alone, emissions of the primary greenhouse gas carbon dioxide have risen more than 20 percent since 1990. Clearly climate change is a daunting environmental challenge…”
And then, in 2010, everything changed.
Clarence Thomas, actively groomed for decades by fossil fuel and other billionaires, became the deciding vote in Citizens United, legalizing not only his own corruption but that of every Republican in Congress.
Once the fossil fuel industry could pour unlimited money into either supporting — or, perhaps more importantly, destroying — the candidacy of any Republican politician, every Republican in the House and Senate began to say, “What climate change?”
As Senator Whitehouse said on the floor of the Senate:
“I believe we lost the ability to address climate change in a bipartisan way because of the evils of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Our present failure to address climate change is a symptom of things gone awry in our democracy due to Citizens United. That decision did not enhance speech in our democracy; it has allowed bullying, wealthy special interests to suppress real debate.”
When Poppy Bush was president, the world confronted a crisis with acid rain destroying monuments and buildings; Democrats and Republicans came together and put into law a sulfur dioxide cap-and-trade “free market solution” that largely solved the problem.
Why can’t we do the same with a cap-and-trade system for carbon pollution from fossil fuels like the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea have already done? Citizens United.
Similarly, why can’t America get our gun crisis under control? We’re the only country in the world where schoolchildren are subjected to the monthly terror of active shooter drills.
Bullets are the leading cause of death among our nation’s children. But no Republican will take on the issue because they know the firearms industry and its front groups will destroy them with a waterfall of money for their inevitable opponent in the next election. Citizens United.
Our public schools are crumbling as the charter and private school industries pour millions into politicians’ coffers. Instead of fixing our schools and raising our educational standards, the private school industry has gotten Republican governors in several states to offer vouchers to every student in the state.
It’s busting the budgets of states (once the public schools are dead, they’ll cut back on the generosity of the vouchers), but making literally billions in profits for the private school industry — money that’s then, in part, recycled back to the politicians promoting their interests. Citizens United.
We have many times more empty houses and apartments than we do homeless people, but America can’t have laws limiting investments in single-family residences (which are being snapped up as passive investments by foreigners and Wall Street) because the industry owns so many politicians.
Investment companies own about a quarter of all American single-family homes: last year, investors bought 22% of all American homes sold and “donated” millions to politicians. Many were purchased specifically to leave them sitting empty, because real estate goes up in value faster than even the stock market.
By pulling all these houses out of the housing market, these investors and speculators are driving up — intentionally — the price of housing. And as the price of housing goes up, so does homelessness: there’s a linear relationship between the two when the price of housing in a community exceeds one-third of the community’s median income.
So why can’t we regulate that? Why can’t there be at least some disincentive, some penalty, for this destructive form of investing? Citizens United.
Our healthcare and health insurance systems are the most expensive in the world — we pay around twice as much per person per year as any other country on Earth — making hospital, insurance, and drug executives and shareholders into billionaires.
It sure not helping the average American: lifespans are actually declining in our country, and were already below those of Canada and most of Europe.
The health insurance industry is running a multi-billion-dollar scam called Medicare Advantage, and even many Democratic politicians will not step up and call it out.
We can’t adopt universal healthcare like every other advanced democracy in the world has, or even clean up Medicare, because those very billionaires in the industry have a stranglehold on our politicians. Citizens United.
To kickstart the internet, in 1996 Congress gave social media companies a pass on liability for the content on their sites.
It was supposed to be a temporary thing to get them going, but today Musk and Zuck continue to allow child-damaging and democracy-destroying content on their sites and Congress trembles — because of Citizens United — before the threat of their and other billions being mobilized to take out any politician who would hold the industry to account.
The newest threats to American democracy are embodied by Christo-fascist religious leaders and organizations who are using their billions — with a “B” — to push laws and court cases that will give them more authority over the lives of average Americans.
It’s become a massive industry that employs hundreds of lawyers nationwide, pulling together and shipping off to the Supreme Court possible cases to alter the nature of American society.
This litigation mill has brought us weaker gun laws, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the end of legal abortion. Made possible by Citizens United,
When Democrats succeeded in passing legislation out of the House of Representatives in 2022 that would have dialed back in a relatively small way the ability of corporations and the morbidly rich to buy off or threaten politicians, every single Republican in the House and the Senate voted against the For The People Act.
It would have become law anyway had not Kirsten Sinema and Joe Manchin — both hugely on the take — voted against their fellow Democrats and killed the effort to get around the Republican filibuster. (Manchin and Sinema joined Republicans yesterday in voting to pass legislation in the Senate that would “preserve gun rights” for veterans deemed so mentally incompetent they can no longer take responsibility for their own finances.)
At the core of Congress’ dysfunction are a handful of rightwing billionaires who don’t think our government should offer any sort of help to people in need, particularly if it’s paid for with their taxes.
Because of the power Citizens United gave them, they keep Republican politicians so terrified of billionaire revenge — and dependent on billionaire largess — that they’re willing to repeatedly humiliate themselves before the nation and the world on live television.
Speaking with me shortly after five Republicans on the Supreme Court handed down their corrupt 2010 Citizens United decision, expanding their 1978 legalization of political bribery, President Jimmy Carter said:
“It [Citizens United] violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. …
“So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”
If America is to recover any semblance of meaningful democracy in our country, we must cut out the cancer of big money in our political system by overturning Citizens United.
There are two paths to this: legislative and judicial. We need to pursue both as aggressively as possible. And the White House should look into the possibility of executive action in this area.
It won’t be easy, but it’s the most important thing we can do over the next two or three years — because it will have such a huge impact on, and must necessarily predate, positive action on pretty much every other issue.