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Bernie Sanders says Citizens United has been ‘disastrous.’ Is he right?

On the tenth anniversary of the controversial Supreme Court decision, a sharp debate over whether money really matters in politics.

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Bernie Sanders is a fierce critic of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which removed most limits on corporate and union spending on politics. The “disastrous” decision, he tells voters, is turning America into an “oligarchy” where billionaires can “buy elections.”

And yet, with the tenth anniversary of the decision arriving next week, his own surging presidential campaign suggests the era of big-money politics isn’t playing out quite as he suggests. Despite swearing off closed-door fundraisers with wealthy donors and Super PACs funded by the mega-rich, Sanders is among the strongest candidates in the Democratic field.


He raised $34.5 million in the final quarter of 2019 — more than any of his rivals. And the self-declared democratic socialist is at or near the top of the polls in three of the first four states in the nominating contest — Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. Elizabeth Warren, who has built a grassroots-funded campaign of her own, isn’t far behind.

And the man they’d both like to unseat, President Trump, hasn’t played by the supposed rules of Citizens United-era finance, either. In the 2016 Republican primary, he raised far less than rivals like Jeb Bush — depending instead on abundant free media coverage to carry him to the nomination.

In the general election, outside groups funded by affluent donors — the kind that Citizens United critics worry so much about — spent twice as much backing Hillary Clinton as they did Trump. And he won anyway.

Money, it would appear, isn’t everything.

And yet, the populist campaigns of Trump, Warren, and Sanders — however prominent — are anomalous. Most politicians can’t command the steady stream of small-dollar contributions filling their coffers. Most have to spend endless hours dialing up wealthy donors and asking for money. And more and more, they find themselves currying favor with the uber-rich financiers and industrialists behind Super PACs with names like “Restoration” and “American Bridge 21st Century.”


So what to think, then? Should we be worried about all the money in politics or not?

Some of the brightest minds in political science and economics have been debating this question for years now. You might be surprised by what they have to say.

BACK IN 2002, a trio of academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a paper titled “Why Is There So Little Money in US Politics?

Yes, so little.

It may seem an odd question, given the seemingly enormous sums spent on elections; this year, candidates and outside groups are expected to shell out almost $10 billion for political advertising. But that figure, as big as it may appear, is just a tiny sliver of our economy. Americans spend that much, each year, on breakfast cereal alone.

As the MIT researchers pointed out, only 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies had political action committees, or PACs, when they published their paper. And PACs donated far less to candidates than the law allowed.

The stakes for industry were — and still are — undoubtedly high: The federal government doles out billions of dollars worth of defense contracts, oil subsidies, and dairy price supports each year. So why not invest more in shaking the trees?

After reviewing dozens of studies analyzing the impact of contributions on lawmakers’ voting records, the researchers settled on a simple answer: Donations don’t buy you much.


They might get you a meeting with a senator or her staff, but there isn’t much evidence they influence her final vote. Moreover, the researchers found, the majority of political contributions came not from corporations or unions, but from individuals. And few of those giving $100 or $500 could reasonably expect to sway public policy.

Indeed, the researchers argued, contributions are not really “investments” in search of returns, but rather — for most of those who give — consumption goods. Stephen Ansolabehere, a co-author of the paper who is now a professor of government at Harvard, describes the motivation of many donors like this: “I give because it makes me feel good — I’m consuming the positive value of that."

He says academics who have studied philanthropy have come to a similar conclusion: People donate because it makes them feel virtuous and because the act of giving may lend some social prestige.

Money, Ansolabehere argues, just doesn’t matter as much as you might expect. Lawrence Lessig disagrees. Vehemently.

A Harvard law professor who ran for president in 2016 on an anti-corruption platform, he says you can’t learn much by analyzing the effect of lobbyists’ donations on representatives’ final votes on legislation.

“There are 10,000 places between the idea and the final vote where influence can be exercised — and that’s indeed what we see," he says. "The lobbyists don’t stand on the floor of Congress and say, ‘don’t vote for this’ or ‘do vote for that.’ They go to a committee and say, ‘Look, we don’t want this bill to come up. And if this bill comes up, we want it to be amended in the following way.’”


Documenting this sort of subtle influence can be a challenge. But political scientist Amy McKay, now at the University of Exeter in England, has made, perhaps, the best effort to date.

Back in 2008 and 2009, she was serving as a congressional research fellow when lawmakers took up the Affordable Care Act. And that gave her access to comments filed by some 900 interest groups. Using plagiarism-detection software, she was able to match text in those comments to the text of amendments. Then, she plumbed campaign finance data.

Commenters who had hosted fundraisers for lawmakers, she found, were three-and-a-half times more likely to get their text into amendments.

Evidence of this sort of direct influence may be relatively rare. But Lessig says there’s a broader case to be made for institutional corruption — that is, corruption not of individual legislators but of the entire system.

Members of Congress may be well-intentioned people, the argument goes. But if they’re forced to spend several hours per day fundraising, they’re going to be unduly influenced by the concerns of a very small group of wealthy people.

Yes, they may still care about expanding health care or strengthening the military. But preserving the carried interest loophole — a longstanding Wall Street tax break — comes to seem like a pressing concern, too.


And with the super-wealthy taking an even larger role in politics after Citizens United, Lessig says, power is only growing more concentrated. An analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal advocacy group, found that donors who gave $1 million or more — a group of just 400 people — accounted for nearly one-third of all reported giving in the 2016 election.

“When they drafted the Constitution, Madison said that Congress would be ‘dependent on the people alone,’” he says. “Well, Super PACs have made it so they’re dependent not on the people alone. They’re dependent, as well, on this tiny, tiny number of funders who basically call the shots in critically important races that determine the control of Congress.”

CAMPAIGN DONATIONS AREN’T just about getting access to decision-makers after the fact. They’re about trying to determine who those decision-makers will be.

They’re about trying to sway the results of elections.

Here, the evidence that money matters isn’t especially strong. Yes, conservative casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was able to keep Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid afloat for months. But his millions couldn’t deliver the Republican nomination. Four years later, hedge fund magnate Tom Steyer’s push to make climate change a big campaign issue and Hillary Clinton president failed on both fronts.

And it’s not just the billionaires who have struggled to make an impact. The political science literature suggests money — whatever its source — just isn’t as important in elections as many believe.

True, some 90 percent of House seats go to the candidates who spend the most. But that figure can be misleading.

Incumbents almost always raise more than challengers; lobbyists like to shower money on powerful figures. And most of the time, they’re running for re-election in safe districts that lean heavily toward their party. A popular Democratic lawmaker can outspend a marginal Republican challenger $1 million to $10,000 and win re-election handily, but that doesn’t say much about the importance of money in politics.

In fact, research suggests that money doesn’t affect winning for incumbents. The literature is unclear on whether it has an impact for challengers.

That’s not to say money is irrelevant.

The media often uses early fundraising as a barometer of viability — and if the press doesn’t take a candidate seriously, it can be hard to get traction. Moreover, some would-be candidates, convinced they won’t be able to match the fundraising of an entrenched incumbent, decide not to run at all.

There’s also evidence that, while money doesn’t seem to matter much in general elections, the advertising it pays for can make a difference in primaries. Why? Research shows that ads have a greater impact when the candidates are less well-known and voters are more open to the choices on offer.

In a general election, a Democratic-leaning voter may be unpersuaded by even the best Republican ad. But in a primary, where all the candidates are Democrats, a powerful 30-second spot could make a difference.

All of this suggests that Citizens United and a group of related court decisions are, in at least one important respect, less consequential than they might appear. The Super PACs they’ve spawned have played a larger role in general elections — where the effect of their advertising is muted by the voters’ increasingly rigid partisanship — and a smaller role in primaries.

Indeed, much of what we expected when the court narrowly decided the Citizens United case has not come to pass.

WHEN THE JUSTICES ruled 10 years ago, the nightmare scenario, for many critics, was that a gusher of corporate money would wash over American politics.

But that hasn’t happened. As CEOs quickly learned, the wrong kind of donation can do real damage to a company’s brand.

Just months after the Citizens United decision, retail giant Target donated to a group backing a Minnesota gubernatorial candidate opposed to same-sex marriage; and the backlash was fierce.

Since then, some corporations have funneled money through organizations that keep their identities secret. But these organizations, known as 501(c)(4)s, have proven a smaller force in politics than Super PACs, which must disclose their donors.

There are ways around some of that disclosure. But the data are pretty clear: the prime funders of Super PACs have been not corporations, but wealthy individuals — such as George Soros, the liberal investor, and Charles Koch, the conservative industrialist. And each has brought his own personality to bear on American politics.

“What people didn’t anticipate is these idiosyncratic, iconoclastic billionaires would have such influence in our system,” says Dan Weiner, deputy director of the election reform program at the Brennan Center. “It’s almost led to a chaos factor.”

Many Republican presidential hopefuls now participate in a process known as the “Adelson primary,” vying for the support of an irascible, grudge-holding billionaire with very particular views on issues like defending Israel.

That’s probably no one’s idea of a healthy democracy. But the worst outcomes, it seems, have been averted. At least for now.

Stanford political scientist Adam Bonica says it’s probably just a matter of time before a company or industry feels so threatened by a candidate, it will put brand considerations aside and pour billions into an election.

“This is my fear — and my prediction,” he says.

Bonica says his best guess is that the oil and gas industries will be the first to make that sort of monumental investment. And they could move as soon as this year.

“If you watch the Democratic debates, it looks like candidates on the stage would prefer that the oil and gas industry no longer exists,” he says.

Of course, some of the most aggressive calls for curbing fossil fuel production come from liberals like Sanders — the same liberals who have raised the loudest alarms about the role of big money in politics.

And if one of them is able to seize the Democratic nomination and put the screws to oil and gas interests, well, we may just see the ultimate test of whether those alarms are justified.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him @dscharfGlobe.