Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, the Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections
by Richard L. Hasen
Yale University Press, 256 pp.
Two thousand and eight was a discouraging year for anyone concerned about the role of money in politics. The presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain was the most expensive in history (according to opensecrets.org, which tracks campaign spending), and outside spending on federal races reached the unprecedented sum of $338 million, about a 50 percent jump from 2004.
How quaint that seems today. In 2012, the first presidential election cycle following the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, outside spending totaled just over $1 billion. Even that may soon resemble a rounding error; the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and their network of conservative donors have already pledged to spend $889 million on the 2016 campaign--likely more than either party will.
Most campaign money comes not from corporations or unions but from rich individuals. In 2012, according to the public policy think tank Demos, 159 donors accounted for nearly 60 percent of all Super PAC funding, and about 93 percent came from 3,318 donors--about one-thousandth of 1 percent of the population. The cap on direct campaign contributions, currently $2,700 per candidate, survived Citizens United, but that money, too, comes overwhelmingly from the rich: the donors who gave more than $200 to federal candidates in 2012 represented just 0.4 percent of the population but accounted for 64 percent of campaign donations from individuals. Not many people have a spare $2,700 lying around to give to politicians.
What is wrong with so much spending by so few? According to the current Supreme Court majority, of course, nothing. In Citizens United, the Court held that the only justification for the burden that spending limits place on the First Amendment right to free speech is preventing quid pro quo corruption--that is, bribery--or its appearance. Since independent spending, even by corporations, can't lead to quid pro quo arrangements (as long as the outside spenders don't "coordinate" with campaigns, a dubious but not illogical assumption), there's no justification for limiting it. Months after that decision, an appeals court extended the logic of Citizens United to its inevitable conclusion, striking down the $5,000 contribution cap for political action committees, or PACs. After all, if independent spending doesn't corrupt, how could donations to independent organizations? Thus was born the Super PAC, which can accept and spend unlimited donations from the super-rich as long as it doesn't coordinate with the candidate it supports. It's impossible to prove that these legal changes caused the explosion in independent spending, but it seems as though people like Sheldon Adelson are more comfortable dropping a hundred million dollars on an election when the money can be laundered through groups with anodyne names like Winning Our Future.