In Defense of Citizens United

Why Campaign Finance Reform Threatens American Democracy

Many Americans are troubled by the country’s ongoing fiscal crisis, which is driven by endless annual budget deficits. These deficits are building up a mountain of gross national debt so large that it will eventually dwarf the country’s GDP. Some place blame for this predicament on a suite of large entitlement programs that are inherently unsustainable. Others blame expensive wars abroad, paid for on the installment plan. And still others blame democracy itself, as a shortsighted public punishes representatives who try to bring tax and spending policies into balance. But they all miss the forest for the trees.

The underlying cause of the U.S. fiscal crisis lies deeper -- in political dysfunction that began when Congress moved to control campaign expenditures through the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971. Much of the law was initially declared unconstitutional for violating the First Amendment, but Congress revised it in 1974, and the revised law governed elections for the following three and a half decades. No longer were candidates free to raise unlimited donations, nor were citizens’ groups free to express their political opinions. In short, organized political discussion and activity were left largely in the hands of the news media and the two leading political parties.

It is no accident that these changes in the rules of American politics coincided with increasing partisan alignment among members of Congress, nor that they coincided with the massive growth of entitlement commitments and fiscal deficits. The changes in campaign finance rules turned American politics into a classic case of monopolistic competition, in which the Democrats and Republicans’ partisan duopoly was protected by government regulation that diminished innovative policy ideas, bipartisanship, and fiscal responsibility. Only the removal of official support for this duopoly can avert continuing U.S. decline. Luckily, such a course correction is already under way, thanks to the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 decision in Citizens United.

MONOPOLISTIC DEMOCRACY

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis