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5 surprising consequences from a decade of Citizens United

January 23, 2020, 12:30 PM UTC

Ten years ago this week, the Supreme Court issued a bombshell decision that tore up rules limiting what corporations could spend on political campaigns. Conservatives hailed the 5–4 ruling, known as Citizens United, as a victory for free speech, but critics warned it would distort democracy.

A decade later, the actual impact of the court’s ruling has become clearer. It is now apparent that Citizens United has indeed altered the course of American politics and that critics’ fears have been validated—though not in the ways they may have predicted. Here are five fallouts from one of the most significant Supreme Court cases in modern history:

Remaining limits on election spending are all but meaningless

Even though the Supreme Court ended limits on what companies could spend on political campaigns, it left in place rules that forbid or limit direct contributions to candidates. In theory, this would let companies and wealthy individuals advertise their views on candidates and issues, but without influencing those candidates directly. In practice, it has created a distinction without a difference.

That’s because Citizens United helped fueled the emergence of so-called super PACs—political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited funds for and against candidates—that often host events where people pay to see a candidate speak. Even though candidates who attend can’t solicit funds directly, the events serve as fundraisers in everything but name. Meanwhile, nonpartisan research firm OpenSecrets notes how campaigns and super PACs have worked hand in glove to coordinate ad spending, barely concealing their cooperation. One egregious example, reported by the Brookings Institution, involved both political parties communicating with super PACs over Twitter to coordinate ad buys and polling strategies.

The takeaway is that limits on direct giving may remain, but Citizens United opened a loophole big enough to drive a Brinks truck through.

Wealthy individuals dominate election spending

In the aftermath of Citizens United, many predicted that big corporations would seize on the new opportunity to make unlimited donations to super PACs and other outside groups that spend money to boost—or more often tear down—certain candidates. And indeed, the amount of money flowing into politics has surged, including in the 2018 midterms, which saw nine of the 10 most expensive non-special- election House races in history. Most of this, however, is not coming from corporations.

According to an OpenSecrets report on Citizens United, corporations have accounted for less than 10% of outside fundraising each election cycle. Instead, it is ultrawealthy individuals such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Chicago billionaires James and Mary Pritzker who are behind the gusher in political money, which has amounted to $4.5 billion in the last decade. Such figures have benefited from a follow-up court ruling, which held that Citizens United meant there can no longer be limits on what individuals can donate to PACs or other independent political entities. Underscoring the point, the report found that 10 major donors and their spouses alone accounted for 7% of all election-related spending in 2018.

Liberal groups are a big reason for the spending surge

While Citizens United is regarded as a victory for Republicans, Democrats and their liberal allies have not been shy about joining in the financial free-for-all. The two super PACs that have raised the most money since the decision are dedicated to electing Democratic presidential and Senate candidates, while No. 9 is the influential liberal women’s group, Emily’s List.

All of this has led the likes of the Wall Street Journal and other publications to claim that Citizens United has not distorted democracy, and to point out that election spending by unions and other left-leaning groups has counterbalanced that of Republican-allied groups.

Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that advocates for fairness in U.S. democracy, disagrees. Its vice president, Paul S. Ryan, told Fortune, “It’s entirely true that the wealthy in both parties are using this new system, but who is not benefiting is the everyday American.”

Ryan believes that massive campaign expenditures by a handful of wealthy people, which can outstrip the collective donations of thousands of ordinary individuals, diminishes the power of regular voters. And while the Democratic candidates running for President have railed about the corrupting influence of money on politics, they have nonetheless embraced the money spigots available in the post–Citizens United era. Joe Biden, for instance, initially refused to accept super PAC support but quietly changed his position last fall after a soft fundraising quarter.

“Dark money” is a new force

Critics’ concerns that Citizens United would allow big corporations to dictate election outcomes appear to have been overblown. The decision, however, seems to have paved the way for an equally troubling phenomenon: the rise of nonprofit entities known as “dark money” groups.

These groups, which enjoy a different legal status than super PACs, came into being thanks to another ruling by the Supreme Court’s conservatives, which held that nonprofit groups don’t have to disclose their donors. That ruling came in 2007, but Citizens United served to magnify its impact by removing restrictions on how much donors could give to dark money groups.

As the chart above shows, conservative groups, including Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the National Rifle Association, have been the most active in deploying dark money tactics. In the past decade, they spent nearly $1 billion on election ads without disclosing who paid for them.

Campaign finance reform has moved to the local level

The ruling in Citizens United is more entrenched than ever at the federal level thanks to a more conservative Supreme Court and its embrace by politicians from both political parties. Campaign finance reform, however, remains very much active in the United States.

Ryan of Common Cause notes that the Supreme Court did not strike down laws that require groups to disclose who is funding them or that forbid coordination between candidates and outside groups. In response, local governments have taken up the cause of preventing money from distorting politics.

“We are getting lots of wins at the state and local level in passing laws obliging disclosure, including the city of Seattle and in Montgomery and Howard counties in Maryland,” says Ryan. “There are wins all over the place—just not on Capitol Hill.”