Five Years After Citizens United, Signs of a Backlash

citizens united decision
On the anniversary of the Citizens United decision, demonstrators stage a protest near the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington on January 20, 2012. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In the five years since the Citizens United decision was handed down, there has been plenty of evidence to document the magnitude of the flow of dark money and the effects it has had on American politics.

In one of the most impassioned moments of the State of the Union address, President Obama decried the corrosive influence of anonymous money in politics. "A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter," he said.

His comment could not have been more timely, coming as it did a day before the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed corporations and labor unions to engage in unlimited spending to advocate for or against candidates.

Advocacy groups used the occasion (and the Twitter hashtag #CU5) to start new conversations about the impact big money is having on our democracy, and how to fix it. The Brennan Center hosted a summit on the topic with Common Cause, Demos and others. The American Constitution Society delved into one of the ruling's more insidious effects: In states where judges are elected, the judiciary is effectively for sale. The Center for American Progress talked about how to mitigate the decision's impact through executive action.

Fifteen members of Congress also gathered to reintroduce a slate of bills designed to deal with the outsize influence of money in politics in a variety of ways: increasing disclosure and transparency, mending holes in the regulatory system, and taking steps to improve campaign funding by encouraging small-donor participation and public financing. And the action wasn't just in Washington, D.C.; in state capitals around the country, activists rallied to support similar initiatives in their cities and states.

But addressing the fallout from the Citizens United case is not merely a cause for progressives to embrace. The head of the Stuart Foundation thinks conservatives have reason to take up its banner, too. The Washington Post profiled one such group, led by the architect of Eric Cantor's defeat at the hands of a Tea Party challenger. This new group, Take Back Our Republic, is making the rounds to argue the conservative case for reform, and finding willing listeners among tax hawks and Tea Partiers alike.

In the five years since the Citizens United decision was handed down, there has been plenty of evidence to document the effects of dark money on American politics. Still, there is room for hope.

The 2014 elections saw signs of life in unusual places, with Arkansans passing ethics and campaign finance reforms; voters in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Montana rejecting well-funded special interest takeovers of their state courts; and organizers in Maine collecting the necessary signatures to put public financing for elections on the ballot in 2015.

In the longer term, the Open Society Foundations and its grantees are working to correct the flawed understanding of the Constitution that led to Citizens United and other recent decisions that have allowed the voices of the privileged few to overwhelm those of everyday citizens. This work aims to challenge the court's current cramped constitutional interpretation while advancing an alternative—one that would foster a vibrant democracy with a breadth of viewpoints and voices represented.

The coalition of people working for change keeps growing. More than 130 organizations have signed onto a simple statement of principles: Our democracy should be a place where everyone participates and everyone's voice is heard; where everyone knows who is buying influence in our elections and government; and where politicians play by common-sense rules and are held accountable with enforceable penalties to deter bad behavior.

Those signatories are joined by an ever-increasing number of small-business owners, unions, civil rights organizations, environmentalists—and, yes, former conservative political operatives—in calling for an end to the overwhelmingly dominant role wealthy individuals and corporations have come to play in American politics. Their work may help make #betterpolitics the next big Twitter hashtag.

Sarah Knight is a program officer with the Open Society Foundations' U.S. Programs. This article first appeared on the Open Society Foundations' website.