It's no secret that Romney's victory in Michigan this week was largely the result of his campaign's wealth. Faced with the prospect of a Santorum victory in their candidate's childhood home state, the Romney campaign opened the floodgates and drowned Santorum under a wave of cash, outspending him by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1. A few weeks ago, Romney outspent Gingrich by a crushing 5 to 1 ratio in the days preceding the Florida primary, mostly by investing in televised attack ads, and achieved an even more convincing win there.
It would be easy for me, as an Obama supporter, to feign righteous anger towards Romney for 'stealing' these primaries. But I won't. To 'steal' implies an element of illegality, or of cheating, and the fact is that the expenditures by the Romney campaign and the pro-Romney 'Restore Our Future' Super PAC were fully within the law.
But don't get me wrong: I do think there is something deeply disturbing about the influence of money in American electoral politics. Yet I don't blame Mitt Romney, or even the Republican Party, for the current state of affairs. Indeed, you can bet that President Obama will make similar use of his own mountain of cash this fall.
The real problem here isn't Romney. Or Obama. The problem is the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, which abolished all limits on financial contributions by individuals and by corporations to organizations called Super PACs that are technically 'unaffiliated' with campaigns but in reality are most definitely affiliated. By reversing nearly all of America's previous limits on campaign finance, the Supreme Court's decision vastly increased the influence wealthy individuals can wield over the political system.
On a philosophical level alone, the Citizens United decision was highly misguided. While many have already criticized the absurd notion in the majority opinion that corporations are people, I'll call your attention to another flaw: the idea that unlimited financial contributions are a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment envisages speech as something that all citizens have equal access to. Anyone can open their mouth and speak up about a law they oppose. Anyone can start a political blog. Anyone can go to a protest, or write a letter to their local newspaper. It is this type of speech that must be protected in order for democracy to succeed.
Likewise, limited financial contributions are another (nearly) universally accessible way of symbolically speaking in favor of certain political causes. The problem, however, is that when financial contributions are unlimited, the speech of the few who have enormous wealth counts for immeasurably more than the speech of everyone else, and indeed renders meaningless the speech of the less well-off. This is fundamentally undemocratic, and thus we must not interpret the First Amendment to mean that individuals have a right to donate to political campaigns without bounds. A much more just system is that which America had until 2010: where contributions to political campaigns were limited by law in order to curtail the influence of millionaires and billionaires.
On a practical level, the Citizens United decision is even more foolish. This is because it doesn't merely encourage, but practically begs for, corruption. In 2011, nearly 80 percent of the value of all Super PAC contributions for all candidates came from merely 196 individuals! (Remember what I said about how this form of speech isn't universally accessible?) Each of these 196 donated in excess of $100,000 to a Super PAC. To say that the eventual winner of the presidency will not be beholden to his mega-donors, and to their particular economic interests, borders on delusional. And this seriously threatens the ability of the president to act in the interests of the general public, which is worrisome.
The 2012 cycle is but the first presidential election in the new post-Citizens United era. We have taken only a few steps out into this brave new world, and what we've found is already distressing. If the decision isn't reversed, the influence of money in American politics will only expand, and the influence of ordinary people will shrivel further. Unfortunately, a constitutional amendment is probably the only way to reverse the Supreme Court's ruling and re-instate a fairer and more sensible system of limits on campaign finance contributions. Although it would be extremely difficult to pass this amendment, I sincerely hope that the next president has the courage and prudence to push for such a necessary change.