If you've tuned in to the media coverage of the ongoing government shutdown, you've probably seen or heard some variation of the following headline: "Politicians Point Fingers As Shutdown Continues." And while there's certainly plenty of finger pointing to go around, few of them have been pointed in the right direction. This isn't President Obama's shutdown or John Boehner's shutdown -- it's Citizens United's.
As a result of the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC), a handful of moneyed interests have managed to circumvent the democratic process and engineer a government shutdown that nobody else wanted. The forces driving the current shutdown are just the latest indication of a disturbing trend in American politics: Elected officials increasingly feel accountable to a vanishingly small percentage of the population with the financial means to threaten their political existence instead of the voters they're elected to represent.
As summarized by a recent New York Times article, we've learned that the shutdown was planned months in advance by a very small but incredibly wealthy network of outside interest groups. Roughly three dozen well funded political organizations signed off on the "Blueprint to Defunding Obamacare," which outlined the strategy of using a government shutdown as leverage against the healthcare law, back in February -- nearly eight months before the shutdown went into effect. A Supreme Court hostile to any efforts to curtail the corrosive influence of money in politics has given these groups free reign to enforce this strategic vision, will of the people be damned.
A quick review: In Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court ruled any restrictions of independent expenditures by corporations, associations, or trade unions unconstitutional. Since most people don't have a lot of money to spare for political contributions -- less than one half of one percent of the population donated over $200 to political candidates, parties, or PACs in the last election -- the practical result of Citizens United and subsequent federal court decisions is an explosion in spending by outside interest groups fueled by an incredibly small group of people.
There are two important factors to bear in mind here. The first is just how large this explosion in spending was. Outside groups spent over $338 million trying to influence the 2008 elections, which was the last presidential election cycle before the Citizens United ruling. A handsome sum to be sure, but one that pales in comparison to the mind-boggling figure of over $1 billion of outside spending in the 2012 elections. In fact, there was more outside spending in the 2012 election cycle then in every presidential election cycle since 1992 combined.
The second is just how small the number of people doing this spending is. In the 2012 election cycle, 216 people -- that's .00007 percent of the population -- contributed over $560 million to super PACs alone, which is more than one and a half times the amount of all outside spending in the 2008 election cycle combined. Put another way, 216 people spent nearly 11,000 times the amount an average family of four makes in an entire year on vapid attack ads produced by nebulous groups with names like "Americans for a More American America."
Thanks to Citizens United, these outside groups can now use the threat of a primary challenge backed by multimillion-dollar ad buys to force their agendas. Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, estimates that there are about 30 hardliners in the House driving the government shutdown and another 150 Republicans who are just playing along out of sheer terror of crossing the incredibly powerful coalition of post-Citizens United interest groups . With organizations like the Senate Conservative Fund and Heritage Action running targeted ads against congressional Republicans who haven't voiced enough enthusiasm for the shutdown strategy, the message that's being sent is clear: If you don't want a super PAC or 501(c)4 backing your next primary challenger to spring up overnight, you'll fall in line and you'll do it now.
A popular Democratic talking point throughout the shutdown accuses congressional Republicans of "holding the government hostage," but this metaphor is an imperfect one. The would-be hostage takers are themselves held hostage by a political system dominated by a handful of wealthy special interests. The opinions of the public or even the majority of congressional Republicans don't matter -- it's the money that's running the show.