In today’s polarized political climate, there are a few things on which American voters overwhelmingly agree. For all our disputes, we can find common ground in this: we’re completely fed up. About 80 percent of us don’t think Congress is doing a good job. Only aboutone third of us view the federal government favorably. In a precipitous drop, less than half of Americans have a favorable view of the Supreme Court. Across all political lines, 75 percent of Americans say there is too much money in politics, and about the same percentage think this glut of money in politics gives the rich more power than the rest in our democracy.
Interestingly, another thing that most Americans have in common is that 80 percent of us have never heard of Citizens United v. FEC, the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. Our feelings of frustration with Washington are deeply connected with the widespread, and entirely founded, suspicion that our elected officials aren’t representing voters, but are instead indebted to the wealthy interests that pay for their campaigns. This distrust has only deepened as politicians and the courts have handed over more and more power to those with the deepest pockets.
Citizens United is only the most famous of the recent spate of Supreme Court decisions aimed at eliminating hard-won campaign finance regulations. In fact, shortly before Citizens United, the George W. Bush-created right-wing bloc of the Supreme Court issued major rulings that had already begun to undermine decades of federal clean election laws.
And we are only partway down the slippery slope. It keeps getting worse as the Supreme Court gradually dismantles state-level clean elections laws, as it did in Arizona, and clarifies that its sweeping decision in Citizens United applies to states as well, as it did in Montana. Indeed, it won’t be long before this or some future right-wing Supreme Court cuts to the chase and lifts the century-old ban on direct corporate contributions to political candidates, one of the most basic checks we have against widespread corruption.
Believe it or not, this November, we’ll have the chance to vote on whether this slippery slope continues, or whether we stop it and roll it back. Each of these regressive campaign finance rulings has had a monumental impact on our democracy. It’s easy to forget that they have been made by one-vote 5-4 majorities of the Supreme Court. That means we’re just one Supreme Court vote away from stopping the trend in its tracks — and even reversing it. Although Mitt Romney has flip-flopped on many issues, he’s crystal clear about how he feels on this issue and exactly what kind of judge he would appoint to the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts. He has said he believes "corporations are people" and he means it. He’s promised to nominate more Supreme Court justices like the ones who handed down Citizens United. And his chief judicial adviser, former judge Robert Bork, is legendary in his opposition to individual voting rights while advocating expansive corporate power. On this issue in particular, President Obama has been very clear and comes down unambiguously on the opposite side. Look no further than his Supreme Court picks so far. Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor have consistently resisted the right-wing court’s radical transformation of our democracy. In fact, his nominees now represent half the votes in the High Court who are standing up for democracy against "government by and for" the highest bidder.
Some 2008 Obama voters may not be thrilled by the last four years. Some may even be considering giving Mitt Romney a chance, despite their misgivings. But no matter who your candidate is, what issues you care about or on what side you come down on them, most importantly your vote this November will likely determine the Supreme Court for a generation. If Romney has the opportunity to replace one of the more moderate Supreme Court justices, the Court’s far-right majority will not remain narrow. The votes will be there to dismantle any remaining limits of money in politics for the foreseeable future. Conversely, future Obama appointments give Americans the chance to halt this downward spiral and the opportunity to reclaim our democracy.
Whatever the issues you most care about, this November’s election will be a choice between two Supreme Courts. And the two alternatives could not be more different. Quite simply, this is the chance that the overwhelming majority of Americans — who recognize that there is too much money in politics and that it is corrupting our government at every level — finally have to vote on it.
Will we seize this opportunity?