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Alex Keyssar

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What Citizens United Has Wrought: Money, Elections, and History

Posted: 01/23/10 02:08 PM ET

It's a nice ironic touch that the case is -- and always will be - known as "Citizens United." A more apt label, without the doublespeak, would be "Citizens Over-ruled."

The Supreme Court's decision to allow corporate money to be spent in electoral campaigns is surely not a victory for united citizens but rather a triumph of corporate power over the nation's citizenry. The majority decision is remarkable not only for its legal sophistry but for its blithe denial of context and reality: reading the 57-page decision, one would never imagine that political life in a democracy could be, or ever has been, distorted, deformed, or undermined by large sums of money.

Indeed, the decision helps to undo the broad political pact that this nation began to adopt roughly a century ago to counter the threat that industrial capitalism posed to democratic institutions. To observers of late-nineteenth century legislatures (including the U.S. congress), it was obvious that newly large and powerful economic interests could utilize their riches to drown out the voice of the people: this was, after all, the era when the word "railroad" first appeared as a verb, reflecting the ability of the nation's largest corporations (railroads) to get legislatures to do their bidding.

Many contemporaries believed that democracy could not endure if huge, private centers of economic power remained on the scene: they advocated either some form of socialism or breaking these economic behemoths into smaller units. Other, more centrist figures gradually developed a different approach: to allow major concentrations of private economic power to exist while encouraging the state to regulate and provide checks on that power.

This broad deal, or pact, central to American life in the twentieth century, could succeed only to the extent that the state represented the will of the people - which meant that elections had to be based on "one person, one vote" and that the voices of all individuals, to the extent possible, had to count equally. When the Tillman Act was passed in 1907, banning corporate contributions to candidates, its fundamental rationale was that the inequalities inherent in an industrial capitalist economy ought not be replicated, or reinforced, in politics or governance.

It was a sensible, if imperfect and incomplete, deal. And it is now gone, eroded by past court rulings and pieces of legislation and, as of January 21, buried by the Supreme Court. Political life in the United States will henceforth mirror, rather than offset, the inequalities of our economic order - even more than it does already.

One further thought about this case, prompted by an effort to imagine what historians might write about it twenty or fifty years from now: will it really seem to be a coincidence that the conservative, Republican wing of the court legalized the use of corporate money a mere year after the Obama campaign's stunning success with grassroots fundraising?