U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) incredible fundraising success is rendering some of his most potent campaign promises meaningless.
Sanders has gained a lot of traction from his aggressive opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. Constant attacks on the ruling, which allows corporations, unions, and other groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on political activities, have been a hallmark of Sanders’ campaign.
The rhetoric, which includes promises to use Citizens as a litmus test for Supreme court nominees and proposals for a constitutional amendment to overturn it, has a found receptive audience in the Democratic base. Sanders has parlayed this arcane issue into a very successful campaign, yet he and his followers are proving their own argument against Citizens wrong.
How Bernie Sanders is demonstrating that Citizens United is not a big deal
The argument that Sanders and others on the left make against Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (the case’s full name) is a simple one: allowing wealthy individuals and organizations to spend unlimited amounts of money allows them to dominate the political process and buy elections. They also contend that Citizens effectively shuts out average people without large checkbooks from the political process.
Ironically, the best evidence that Sanders’ Citizens thesis is false is his own fundraising efforts. The Sanders’ campaign raised $73 million from small donors in 2015, The Daily Beast reported. The campaign did that without a fundraising team or a Super PAC; Bernie simply asked his followers for money and they gave.
Press accounts indicate that Sanders has been raking in the cash, $33 million in the last quarter of 2015 alone, and accumulating a massive war chest. What’s more interesting is that Bernie’s fundraising has been accelerating: his campaign collected $3.1 million from Jan. 12 through 16, Politico reported.
Almost all of this money has been collected digitally, largely through small donations of less than $30, The Washington Post reported. Yet Sanders raised almost as much money as Hillary Clinton did from her friends on Wall Street. Hillary raised around $77 million, compared to Sanders $73 million.
Citizens United is a Great Fundraising Tool
Sanders’ game-changing fundraising efforts have proven the fears about Citizens United, that big business could shut out anti-establishment candidates with a wall of cash, are nothing but hysteria. New technology has effectively made the arguments swirling around Citizens meaningless.
A self-styled social democrat and outspoken critic of big business has proven himself as the best political fundraiser in America, and he’s done so without taking a single cent of corporate cash. Even if he does not win the Democratic nomination, Sanders has changed political fundraising forever and shown every grassroots activist in America how to get around Citizens.
So does this mean Bernie will end his crusade against Citizens? The answer is no, because attacks on Citizens are a great fundraising tool. Much of the flood of cash flowing into the Sanders’ coffers is propelled by hysteria about Citizens and big donors such as the Koch Brothers.
That means Bernie and other leftwing politicians will keep up the anti-Citizens chorus as long as they can. They know that attacks on the ruling equal campaign donations, and lots of them.
Why Bernie Could End up Defending Citizens
The whole debate over Citizens is absurd, and it could get even more absurd in the near future. Leftists like Bernie, who are currently on the warpath against Citizens, could end up as some of its biggest defenders.
Now that digital fundraising has given grassroots activists the means to accumulate war chests that are as big, and in some cases, bigger than those of special interests, there will certainly be pressure to shut off the cash flow. The corporate elite and the political elite might very well try to use some sort of “campaign finance reform” to block future efforts like Bernie’s. The real purpose of campaign finance reform is always to suppress freedom of speech by restricting who gets access to cash, not to keep money out of politics.
When that occurs, the suppressors come right up against Citizens United in which the Supreme Court ruled that cash is free speech. Basically, the court ruled that the First Amendment allows Americans to spend as much money as they want to promote their opinions.
Citizens involved a wealthy conservative activist, but it is easy to infer that it gives that right to everybody. Yes, Citizens protects the right of a billionaire to spend tens of millions of dollars to promote a cause, but it also protects a retired school teacher’s right to send $30 to Bernie Sanders.
That means it is quite likely that some of the very leftwing organizations that are currently attacking Citizens will start invoking it to protect their own fundraising efforts. We are likely to see such use of Citizens if there is a successful grassroots effort to fund Congressional campaigns or to promote a popular cause, such as Single Payer Healthcare.
Not only has Bernie Sanders disproved his own argument against Citizens United, but he also could be paving the way for new court battles in which the left will end up defending that landmark ruling.