THE BLOG
01/20/2015 07:19 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

Who Is Citizens United? (WATCH)

As we mark the 5th anniversary of the disastrous Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. FEC, it is worth heeding: Who is Citizens United, and how did they manage to subvert generations of campaign finance laws? The name now synonymous with untold billions influencing our elections had its origins as a much more meager offspring in the same spirit of under-the-table politicking.

In 1971, Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer, wrote a pivotal essay outlining manifold ways that large business interests could engineer a corporate takeover of the democratic process in America in order to maintain their dominance. The Powell Memo, as it came to be known, called for vast lobbying by businesses as well as industry-wide trade groups, creating think tanks to author business-friendly policy, acquiring media outlets and newspapers that will promote that business idea, as well as a long-term gaming of the legal system to fight regulation with the corporate war chest. Another recommendation of Powell's was to foster and support independent outspoken groups to lend the appearance of popular opinion supporting the business-friendly agenda as it makes its way through the co-opted outlets, because even he knew these ideas were not popular. Powell's new treatise earned him the admiration of industrialists, and he was swiftly appointed to the Supreme Court by President Nixon.

Jump to 1988, the presidential race between Vice President George Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. With Dukakis ahead by double-digits coming out of the Democratic National Convention, it would take something considerable to derail his momentum against the candidate with the Iran Contra scandal hanging over him. The Republican National Committee released a campaign commercial of its own, which marked one of the first times an outside group ran its own TV ad, particularly to do the dirty work for a campaign.

This ad, "WIllie Horton," became legendary both for its incendiary racial pandering as well its divisive success. Using the mug shot of a black man with a beard, a grave announcer told the story of how this man stabbed a boy and a girl after being released on furlough under Gov. Dukakis, whereas George Bush supported the death penalty. A false choice to begin with, this notoriously manipulative ad neglected to mention that this furlough program was founded by Ronald Reagan when he was governor. The racist fear mongering was deliberate, from the fact that Lee Atwater changed his name from William to "Willie" to sound more uneducated, to GOP political consultant Roger Ailes' infamous quote, "The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it." (Roger Ailes now runs FOX News, by the way, I'm sure Powell would be proud.) The provocations of prejudice proved effective, elevating Bush to President, and also cementing a future of outside ads--with outside money--to operate as an extension of the campaign, often being the knee-capper out of nowhere.

Floyd Brown, who co-created the Willie Horton ad, went on to found Citizens United that same year, 1988, to continue the effort of conservative trolling in the modern political landscape. The group was quiet for the first few years, until they ran ads attacking Senate Democrats who were considering against confirming Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, as he was mired in controversy surrounding sexual harassment. David Bossie joined Citizens United as Floyd Brown's protege, leaving Capitol Hill where he worked as an aide for Newt Gingrich until some of his efforts to smear the Clintons had gone too far, which is saying something.

From there, Citizens United churned out home movies of talking heads espousing conservative sentiments covered with stock footage. Some videos were Reagan hagiographies, others demonizing the ACLU and the U.N., even Bossie's mentor Newt Gingrich hosted a few of their films. That is essentially the level of where this non-profit 501(c)(4) Citizens United was -- if Newt Gingrich has some publisher that will print his 16 books or how ever many he has banged out, think of this as the home video version of the small-market conservative press.

Notoriety did not arrive until Citizens United ran ads for "Hillary: The Movie" in New Hampshire within 30 days of the 2008 primary, violating campaign laws as a non-profit running political spots. While the ads were ostensibly for the movie, the commercial itself consisted of lacerating accusations against Hillary Clinton, clearly intended as an attack ad.

Four years prior, David Bossie had claimed that movie ads for Fahrenheit 9/11 were technically ads for John Kerry's campaign, since they showed President George W. Bush, John Kerry's opponent. When the Federal Elections Commission denied that Michael Moore's movie ads were the same as outside ads in elections, that set the stage for Bossie to attempt the same claim.

After Citizens United were fined by the F.E.C. for the New Hampshire ads, they took the government agency to court, claiming that their commercials for a video-on-demand should not have been subject to the restrictions outlined in the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002. But once it reached the U.S. Supreme Court, this case took a dramatic twist.

The following short excerpt from my documentary PAY 2 PLAY: Democracy's High Stakes follows Citizens United's origins and how a small lawsuit became a crisis for democracy. Featuring People For the American Way's Marge Baker, The Nation's John Nichols, Public Campaign's Nick Nyhart, Marianne WIlliamson, Jessica Levinson, Brad Friedman, and President Barack Obama in his State of the Union Address.

Citizens United, the group, is just one viper in the pit lurking to strike against a fair democratic process--they happened to strike at the right time, after years of advancing ideologue judges deferential to corporate needs over the public interest. While the Powell Memo proved effective, it is prefaced on the belief that People Power ultimately guides our country. On the fifth anniversary of Citizens United the energy and support for major reform has become a widespread effort, attracting citizens across the political spectrum. Let this day mark as an anniversary of uniting us behind the necessary, inevitable reform ahead.

PAY 2 PLAY: Democracy's High Stakes is having a national screening day January 21 on college campuses across the country and viewing parties with partners in the Democracy Movement. Find a screening near you or host your own at Pay2Play.tv. Look for joint PAY 2 PLAY actions at L.A. City Hall at 4 pm and the New York Stock Exchange at 3:30 pm.