Defending Both Political Equality and Free Speech

“Money On My Mind” is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters) and are meant to stimulate discussion.



March 2018
By Jay Mandle

The 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. the FEC, and the closely related Appeals Court’s SpeechNow v. the FEC ruling have together transformed the structure of American politics. In combination, these decisions have permitted unlimited political spending, expenditures that are “independent” and “outside” of candidates’ campaigns. The only proviso is that these activities, often engaged in by what are called SuperPACS, may not explicitly coordinate with a candidate’s official campaign, a proviso that in practice is almost entirely disregarded.

When these decisions were handed down, the anticipation was that a deluge of additional money would flood the political system. That has not occurred. Instead, the flow of political money has been redirected, away from official campaigns and into independent spending.

The table below shows what has happened. Between the non-presidential years 2010 and 2014, outside expenditures increased by 66.7 percent. And they rose by 30.0 percent between the presidential years 2012 and 2016. At the same time, federal campaign spending fell between 8 and 9 percent over this period. The result was that by 2016, outside spending had risen to more than one-fifth of political expenditures. The Brennan Center reports that in ten key 2016 Senatorial races, outside groups were actually responsible for more than half of all political spending.

Table 1

Campaign and Independent Costs, 2010- 2016, Federal Elections

Source: Total Costs, Center for Responsive Politics, “Total Costs of Election,” and “Total Outside Spending by Election Cycle, Excluding Party Committees.” Costs Adjusted for inflation using Consumer Price Index, Total All Items for the United States, 2010 = 100, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louse, FRED,

With this restructuring, rich donors have become even more politically dominant than they were before the court decisions. Since independent contributions and expenditures are unlimited, SuperPACS can collect very large sums of money to use in targeted electoral races, often swamping the outlays made by candidates themselves. According to the same Brennan Center report, one donor spent more outside money attacking the Democratic Party candidate in the New Hampshire Senatorial race than the candidate herself raised in the entire campaign.

These court decisions have enabled very wealthy funders to extend their political reach far beyond just influencing individual elections. Ultra-rich donors have networked with one another, using their money to engage in a wide range of political activities. None have been more active than the Koch brothers, Charles and David. In 2015, Politico revealed that Charles Koch and David Koch, “…have quietly assembled, piece by piece, a privatized political and policy advocacy operation like no other in American history that today includes hundreds of donors and employs 1,200 full-time year-round staffers in 107 offices nationwide.”[1] Just recently it was reported that using the Charles Koch Foundation as an umbrella organization, the Koch brothers intend to spend $400 million during the 2018 electoral cycle.[2]

In all of this, the Kochs, and other networks like theirs, trample on one of the pillars of democracy – political equality – while taking advantage another – free speech. The right to free speech allows them to use their wealth as they please, while the power they thereby accumulate subverts the egalitarian content of our political system.

This conflict between free speech and political equality, however, need not doom hopes for a just political system. Political equality and free speech can co-exist. But that co-existence requires treating electoral races as public goods. When candidates are offered the option of running for office using taxpayer money – public campaign financing – they can be freed from depending on private donors. Public funding for candidates allows individuals who are unable to raise large privately funded war chests to run credible electoral campaigns. Freed from dependence on wealthy patrons, once in office those candidate can respond to their constituents’ interests rather than those of their financial benefactors. In this way, the political power of the private donor class can be reduced, and the cause of political equality enhanced.

But free speech too must, and will, be protected. Because public campaign financing is voluntary for candidates, nothing prevents rich donors from using their wealth as they choose. Their political power however will be confronted with new kinds of challengers: well-funded candidates independent of their control.

In order to be effective, tax-payer funded grants provided to candidates will have to be substantial. The system will not work on a stringent budget. The super-rich can be expected to invest heavily to defeat publicly-funded candidates with whom they disagree. The need for generous funding though, is not an insurmountable objection to a publicly financed electoral system. This year, President Trump’s defense budget request is for $639.1 billion. An appropriation for candidates that would match all of the electoral expenditures undertaken in 2016 would require one-one hundredth of that amount – about $6 billion.

What in fact is at issue here is not cost, but the priority placed on constructing a democracy of political equality that also protects free speech.

[1] Kenneth P. Vogel, “How the Koch Network Rivals the GOP,” Politico, December 20, 2015,
[2] Philip Elliot, “The Koch Brothers Plan to Spend a Record-Setting $400 Million,” Time, January 28, 2018,

© 2018 Democracy Matters, Inc. Democracy Matters is a non-profit, non-partisan organization. | Privacy Statement

The Democracy Matters Institute / 201 Riverview Dr. / Poughkeepsie, NY 12601-3935