The Citizens United case spurred much outrage on the political left, including claims that the Roberts Court was sacrificing its legitimacy to aid Republicans by allowing corporate money to flow freely into political campaigns. Recently, many commentators have defended Chief Justice Roberts from speculation that he capitulated to political pressure in NFIB v. Sebelius by noting that he has been immune to political pressure attending Citizens United. Indeed, the Court had the opportunity to but refused to reconsider Citizens United this past term.
I’m not going to make any normative judgment about the political effects of Citizens United, nor am I going to speculate about Roberts’s motives (at least not in this post). But I did want to mention that I think that liberal political activist types tend to grossly overestimate how much non-political types care about Citizens United.
Here is (my admittedly purely anecdotal) evidence. Friends and family of mine know I’m a law professor, and know that I teach evidence and constitutional law. Naturally, when they are curious about a case they will often ask me what I think of it. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the OJ Simpson trial, Jones v. Clinton, Bush v. Gore, Grutter and Gratz, most recently, an especially large number of questions about the constitutionality of Obamacare (before, during, and after the litigation). No one has ever asked me about Citizens United or the constitutionality campaign finance reform–not my liberal friends and family, not my conservative friends and family, not my libertarian friends and family. Indeed, I have a few second cousins who I see a few times a year who work in various political jobs in DC, and none of them have expressed interest in the issue, though we’ve discussed a bunch of other controversies that raise constitutional issues.
So maybe my own experience is just a fluke, but I just don’t get the sense that Citizens United has resonated much in the general public. If I’m right, that doesn’t necessarily mean that people don’t care about “money in politics,” they just don’t seem to care about (and in many cases likely aren’t aware of) the Citizens United decision, as such.
UPDATE: Yes, I know that pollsters get strong negative response to CU when they ask questions like this (taken from a real poll):
Now let me read you some information. In 2010, the Supreme Court decided in a case commonly referred to as Citizens United that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money to directly support or oppose political candidates. Before the ruling,corporations and unions could not. From what you know, do you favor or oppose this Supreme Court ruling?
This really doesn’t tell us whether the respondents care about, or were even aware of before prompted by pollsters, the CU decision.
Also, I suppose I should clarify that I’m not arguing that no one, or only a very insubstantial percentage of people, care about Citizens United. Rather, I suspect that the level of interest in the case in the general public, that is among people who aren’t political junkies or activists, is much lower than their interest in the cases I mention above.
FURTHER UPDATE: Here is some relevant data. According to Gallup, in June 2009, before CU, 44% of Democrats (the group in which outrage re CU is clearly greatest) expressed a great deal of confidence in the Supreme Court. In July 2010, after CU, this went up to 48%. In June 2012, after two years of supposed outrage over CU, the number went all the way down to…. 44%. (For independents, the numbers were 36-35-32, for Republicans 35-2638.) These numbers do not depict a public, even a Democratic public, seething with outrage over Citizens United. [By contrast, Democrats’ approval of the Court plunged by 28 percent points just after Bush v. Gore, and didn’t fully recover until Obama became president].]