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The Landscape For Campaign Finance, 10 Years After Citizens United


Ten years ago today, the Supreme Court issued an opinion that has been called a victory for free speech, a hostile corporate takeover of our democratic process and a small revolution in campaign finance law. We're talking about the case Citizens United v. FEC. The court ruled 5-4 that corporations have the right to spend as much money as they like to support or oppose political candidates. Opponents argue that this let powerful, sometimes hidden, interests reshape American politics.

To look at how this ruling has changed politics in the last decade, Nate Persily of Stanford Law School joins us.

Hi there.


SHAPIRO: With 10 years of hindsight, what effect do you think that this one decision has had on campaign finance?

PERSILY: Well, I think Citizens United has really become more of a metaphor for all the problems in the campaign finance system as opposed to sort of focus on the decision itself. But the decision itself was simply about clearing the way for corporations to spend as much money as they wanted on politics, on electioneering activities. And while we haven't seen a rush of corporations filling that void, we have seen rich individuals - in particular, through the vehicle of superPACs - spending an enormous amount of money since Citizens United.

SHAPIRO: And to what extent is that a direct reflection of the court's ruling in Citizens United?

PERSILY: Well, Citizens United sort of opened the door that a lower court decision called SpeechNow v. FEC sort of blew open. And so while the issue of superPACs and individual money was not at issue in Citizens United, it certainly laid the foundation for a more sort of deregulatory posture in campaign finance.

SHAPIRO: Give us a specific snapshot of what we're seeing today and how that reflects what the Supreme Court decided 10 years ago.

PERSILY: Well, I think it is true that these rich individuals are playing an outsized role in the campaign finance system, but we're also seeing the rise of small-donor fundraising. So candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are finding that they're able to raise tens of millions and maybe hundreds of millions of dollars over time on small-donor fundraising. This is also something that Donald Trump learned. He raised and set a record in 2016 for small-donor fundraising and...

SHAPIRO: Which has nothing to do with Citizens United at all.

PERSILY: Which has nothing to do with Citizens United at all. And it is, you know, a product of the new technology of fundraising - the fact that you can appeal over the Internet to lots of people.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that means that the fears about big money in politics are starting to get eclipsed because big money is no longer kind of, like, the golden ring that everybody's trying to grab?

PERSILY: I think if you want to examine the impact of big money on politics in the U.S., you have to go beyond the presidential election. And so for Senate and congressional elections, it's still the case that superPACs can be extremely important when it comes to competitive races. And we're seeing a lot of money from a lot of different sources come into American politics.

SHAPIRO: In this ruling, the court expressed support for disclosure and transparency. Has that happened?

PERSILY: There hasn't been increased disclosure as a result of Citizens United. If anything, we've seen a move toward funding vehicles like 501(c)(4) organizations, so-called dark money organizations, where there's less transparency. But Citizens United does make clear that if states or the federal government wanted to be more aggressive when it comes to transparency and disclosure that they could do so. The area where we've seen more transparency is in the area of digital advertising since the 2016 election, where the major Internet platforms have required archives of the advertisements and then more information about who's spending money on their platform.

SHAPIRO: But that's a decision that the Internet companies are making - the Facebooks and Googles of the world. It's not state or federal law, right?

PERSILY: That's right. And so these firms are, in many ways, taking up the baton of regulation that the federal government has dropped because there's no consensus among the Republicans and Democrats about campaign finance reform anymore.

SHAPIRO: Nate Persily is a campaign finance expert at Stanford Law School.

Thanks a lot.

PERSILY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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