Citizens United: A Defining Struggle for Our Time

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    No one ever said democracy would be easy, especially in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. In this milestone decision, the U.S. government is prohibited from placing limits on independent spending by corporations and unions for political purposes. With the infusion of countless money into the political process, many opponents of Citizens United have argued that the spirit and the letter or our democracy has been undermined by the wealthiest U.S. citizens and private entities. It’s difficult to argue against this viewpoint.

    In our democracy, most citizens are informed politically by friends, family, and the news. Excepting for a minority population of “policy entrepreneurs” who actively seek out political information from a variety of information mediums, most friends and family members get their political information from the news media as well. And this is where the problem lies. If most U.S. citizens receive their political information from the news media and the news media is increasingly being flooded with vast amounts of political propaganda stemming from “Super PACs” allowed under the Citizens United decision, how will this shape public opinion and ultimately, our democratic process?  

    Imagine for a moment that each policy issue has two different policy advocates and that, on average, each side has an equally loud megaphone from which to espouse and argue their viewpoints. Now imagine that because of the Citizens United decision, one side in particular has exponentially increased the size of their megaphone and consequently, their ability to influence public opinion. The information asymmetry that results from this disparity in marketing power creates a policy viewpoint imbalance that has the strong potential to inhibit critical thinking and sway public opinion in the direction of the biggest and loudest megaphone. Unequivocally, big business has the biggest and loudest megaphone in the U.S. and they are not afraid to aggressively use it to achieve their goals.

    When the Founding Fathers conceived of our republic, they did so with the Roman and Athenian models of democratic governance in mind. While they were aware of the what sustained these systems, they believed, on the whole, that American citizens would be intelligent and informed enough about political matters to make sound decisions. Hence, the Founding Fathers believed resolutely in an open and free press that could disseminate a wide range of political opinions and commentary. But with Citizens United, a free and open press is being sounded out by Super PACs with financial backing that many sovereign nation-states would be hard-pressed to match, let alone exceed. While we can go to Blue Virginia’s blog site or the New York Times online, Super PACs use their large megaphones to swamp these media sources.

    Democracy has not been lost, but the dangers represented by Citizens United and the forces it has unleashed cannot be overstated. The interests invested in the Super PACs across the country are very powerful and understand how to manipulate the public to achieve their ends. The only problem for them is they have continuously underestimated the resolve and intelligence of the American people. Loud megaphone or not, Americans will not be cajoled into serving the interests of a small group of Americans whose goals are diametrically opposed to those of the 99%. But we’ll have to work at getting our democracy back from super-wealthy private interests. Each generation has its defining struggle. Maybe this is ours.