More than 10 years after Citizens United money in politics undermines in new ways

The January 2010 Supreme Court Case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission overturned previous campaign finance restrictions and generated substantial controversy about the influence of corporate money in politics. The case reinforced the notion of money as speech by equating campaign spending with political speech and extending First Amendment protections to corporations. The ruling sent shockwaves through the electorate, and significantly undermined the public’s confidence in the court with 80% opposed to the ruling. Yet the ruling has had less of an impact on politics than initially feared.

Why is it that unleashing the flood gates to corporate cash hasn’t resulted in more buying of offices? Its largely a function of the type of communication money buys: namely, that money as speech is a less sophisticated model of communication than the court originally thought.

The concept of money as speech has alway been problematic because while democracy is premised on the notion of “one person one vote,” money is inherently unequal in distribution. The ability of money in politics to corrupt is a long running fear, and Madison and the framers worried about its undue influence. They were right to worry — today, corporations and industry associations spend billions on lobbying, and routinely achieve their objectives on health care, prescription drug pricing, and telecomm policy.

But in numerous races across the country, from the city council level to the presidency the infusion of corporate money into politics has not always been able to buy victory. Witness Amazon’s failed attempt to influence the City Council race in Seattle. Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 Presidential race to Trump (who spent half as much and favored non-traditional spending rather than ad buys). This year watch Michael Bloomberg’s late entry into the Presidential race (where he is currently at 14%). While money helps, it’s not in and of itself usually enough.

Why is that? Because all too often money takes the simplest form of political speech: paid advertising. That’s certainly the form of speech the Court had in mind in the Citizens United case, and it’s the common one we see billionaires like Bloomberg employ. Yet this is only very narrow form of communication.

Those who study communication and media effects generally recognize three major models of communication: the linear, the interactive, and the transactional. In exploring paid political communication over the last election cycle, outreach is increasingly taking the later forms.

The linear model of communication fits our traditional broadcast style of messaging, with a sender and a receiver. The interactive model of communication expands on this to recognize that both the sender and the receiver of a message bring their own unique experiences and understandings to the exchange that can distort the message. The transactional model advances a notion of communication as multidirectional, with the sender and the receiver equally capable of influencing one another. Grassroots outreach, social media messaging, and the targeting of ads to key audiences more closely resemble these models. They allow supporters to help amplify the message through their on efforts, but they also provide the means for manipulative campaign practices such as those practiced by Cambridge Analytica. It’s deeply problematic that most of our regulation and court rulings presume a model that no longer fits when we consider these emerging technologies.

Especially as there has been an increased awareness that rather than a passive audience, viewers process and engage with the media they consume. The transactional model, by which people bring their own beliefs and preconceptions that can affect how media influences them, makes infinitely more sense in today’s era of social media. It also frankly better fits with the concerns that the public has long brought to bear on the issue of money in politics — the potential for outsize influence and corruption, a lack of perceived fairness when some speech can drown out the speech of others, and the ability to unfairly bias, distort, and influence certain audiences.

More than 10 years after Citizens United money in politics undermines in new ways — and it’s time to catch up.

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