Departments hold Constitution Day debate on Citizens United

The Departments of Political Science, Philosophy and Religious Studies celebrated Constitution Day last Thursday, Sept. 17 with a debate on Citizens United in the Procrastinator.

An audience of just over 100 gathered to watch students Alyssa Price, Charlie Bernstein and Lena Wooldridge debate Professors David Parker and Sara Rushing over the claim that the United States Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United in 2010 is a threat to our democracy. The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment rights to free speech applied to non-profits, labor unions and corporations. Most of the discussion centered around the topic of corporate expenditures and their influence on elections.

Price, a student in the history department, argued that there is a long history in the United States of government’s limiting corporation’s participation in elections, citing Teddy Roosevelt’s trust busting policies in 1904.  Price argued that campaign spending can become corrupt when it involves corporations and that it ultimately “undermines our confidence in democracy.” Price also noted that corporations can “blatantly lie to the public” and that their large amounts of money to spend on campaigns “drown out the voices of individual citizens.”

Philosophy student Bernstein said that participation of corporations in our electoral process perverts our normal electoral process since “any purchase we now make, we are voting with our dollars.”  Bernstein argued that the involvement of corporations in our democracy creates a “dollarocracy” which has created an unequal system of democracy in the United States.  Bernstein also quoted John Locke to support his arguments and said that Citizens United has resulted in less freedoms for voters.

The last student to speak on the panel was Wooldridge, a political science student.  She argued that the allowance of more corporate influence has created a system with more anonymous donors and more “dark money.”  Wooldridge also argued that Citizens United and increasing amounts of campaign spending has resulted in more “sensationalized” campaigns, and has “bulldozed the level playing field” that is needed in a representative democracy.

David Parker, a professor in the Political Science Department was the one panelist to argue in favor of Citizens United, saying that he is a political scientist who believes in objective studies of money’s influence in politics and that studies have shown large amounts of money actually increase education of issues to the public.  Parker cited figures showing that the soft drink industry spends far more on advertising to the public than it does on political speech, and asserted that the notion of money buying elections is nonsense because of many examples of politicians and groups spending large amounts of money to later lose at the ballot box.

Parker said that “politics has always been a nasty business,” giving quotes from presidential campaigns far in the past. He concluded by citing a study showing that increased negative political advertising also increased voter turnout.

The last to speak on the panel was Political Science professor Sara Rushing, who opened saying she wouldn’t use numbers in the same way Parker had to make her point.  Rushing said that Citizens United has caused the American people to “lose faith in democracy” and that while the court ruling defined corruption in very specific terms (bribery), she believed that the damage caused by the corruption met a much broader definition. Rushing said she believed that Citizens United created systemic corruption of our democracy, which she contended was much worse than bribery of individual politicians or quid pro quo favor trading cited by the Supreme Court.  

Rushing cited numbers showing that the overall spending of smaller contributions paled in comparison to the amounts raised by the wealthy. Rushing stated that 87 percent of the public make no political contributions and cited numbers from the Romney presidential campaign in 2012 showing that a small group of 40 donors gave a combined amount triple to that of Romney’s 350,000 individual, small amount donors.

After the panel audience members asked questions and challenged Parker on some of his assertions about peer-reviewed studies not showing money influence races.  Parker stood his ground and appeared to even convince some of his fellow panelists at times when saying although money was a prerequisite to getting into a race, it was no guarantee of winning.  Parker pointed to numbers from his book Battle for the Big Sky, which took an in-depth looks at the 2012 Montana Senate race between Senator Jon Tester and Congressman Denny Rehberg.