A decision that shaped politics

By Benjamin Chase of the Plainsman
Posted 4/20/24

This From the Mound, we re-examine how a landmark Supreme Court decision has affected politics

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A decision that shaped politics


“All the things I could do
If I had a little money
It’s a rich man’s world”
“Money, Money, Money”

Swedish supergroup ABBA released “Money, Money, Money” as the second single from the group’s fourth album, Arrival, in November of 1976.

The song was the follow-up to “Dancing Queen” and the album would launch the group from a well-known international group to superstars.

The song reached the top of the charts in Australia and No. 3 in the United Kingdom, but only topped out at 56 on the Billboard Hot 100. Those who have seen the movie Mamma Mia! remember Meryl Streep singing the song.

The fun, bouncy melody to the song is accentuated in the music video, which was inspired by the film Cabaret, with the women of the group wearing 1920s-style costumes during the verses of the song.

The year 1976 brought ABBA’s hit song and also another popularized phrase around money.

Certainly the line “follow the money” had been quoted elsewhere before, but the film All the President’s Men, about the reveal of the Watergate scandal, released in 1976, truly put the phrase in the popular lexicon.

Specifically, the film brought Americans to consider that making things happen in “modern” politics required money.

That’s why the actions after a major Supreme Court decision could have such a huge impact on elections this year, specifically in how candidates raise funds.

Not that Supreme Court decision, but one made..... 14 years ago.

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court ruled 5-4 that corporations, nonprofit organizations, labor unions, and other public associations qualify as “individuals” when reviewing campaign donations.

This opened the door for businesses and organized groups to make large donations without running into campaign contribution restrictions that companies would tend to have.

Senator Mitch McConnell cheered the ruling heavily, stating that it was a victory for First Amendment rights.

Initially, the decision became a divisive issue that separated the parties, as Democrats tended to be against the decision and therefore, the Democrat National Party did not mobilize to set up Political Action Committees (PACs).

Republicans, on the other hand, sparked by Charles and David Koch, known simply as the Koch brothers, set up dozens of PACs to begin funneling money to their preferred candidates within months

That’s grown to significantly more than just the first couple dozen...and Democrats absolutely have caught up.

In fact, with the way the ruling has been used, many people who aren’t even politicians are significant players in what former President Donald Trump termed as “the swamp” of long-term politicians that seem to make a career out of work in Washington, D.C.

Oddly, Trump was part of that group that jumped on the new decision. He donated heavily to both parties in support of candidates who would do what he wanted done in D.C., exactly the sort of “swamp” behavior that he belittled and denigrated while on the campaign trail in 2016.

From his own personal donations that can be tracked, Trump made $1.15 million in donations to Republican candidates and nearly $700,000 in donations to Democrat candidates from 1989 to 2015.

After the Citizens United ruling, Trump also funneled money to candidates through his various business organizations to allow him to circumvent individual political donation caps.

Trump saw the impact of Citizens United and reacted quickly to the Republican PACs that were set up soon after the decision. He funneled $630,000 of his donations to Republican candidates from the time of the Citizens United decision until he began to run himself for President in 2015.

When asked about why he would donate so heavily to both parties, Trump responded, “It’s smart. It’s called being an intelligent person and a great person...you wanna get along with all sides because you’re going to need things from everybody.”

While that certainly is not an outlandish view, it’s also one that is out of line with the intent of campaign contribution limits.

Individuals are capped at $3,300 per campaign and $41,300 by an individual to a national party over the course of a year.

Trump’s donating equaled out to roughly $74,000 per year from 1989-2015, including nearly $140,000 per year after Citizens United came into play, which shows how his ability to impact elections was allowed to exceed the individual limits that you and I have to adhere to - unless we use the PAC work around.

This is not a rip on Donald Trump, mind you. PACs are how politics gets done now in the age of corporations being labeled as individuals and given the same rights.

Democrat PACs donate to Democrat candidates who will push their particular agenda. Republican PACs do the same with their candidates. Then you have PACs who are willing to pick and choose candidates from either party as long that candidate supports a particular issue or agenda.

It all leads to campaign fundraising that is loaded with people who’s money has an agenda, an intention for the candidate that accepts it. And that’s before we get into lobbying and the money that companies spend on politicians in order to convince them to vote a particular way on an issue.

When we complain about our political system being broken and our politicians being more divided than ever, the results of the Citizens United case are seen permeating throughout the divides in D.C. and in many state legislatures today.

You just need to follow the money.