Two years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which allowed unlimited corporate and union money into American politics, there is one line that continues to echo: “The appearance of influence or access … will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”
That line lasts because it’s a testable prediction. It’s not a question of precedent or constitutional interpretation, but of public opinion—and as such, we all feel competent to judge it. Loss of faith, the Supreme Court allowed, is itself an argument against our increasingly unregulated campaign spending regime.
Of course, democratic faith is a slippery concept. But it is always on display in an election's aftermath. In the best case, the election's winners and losers have a shared, if grudging, agreement about the fairness of the process and its outcome. In the worst case, the winner's legitimacy is just one more "fact" to disagree about.
Does massive campaign spending move us closer to the worst case? One view of the 2012 election holds that super PACs proved far less effective than feared. "But ultimately," argues Nicholas Confessore in the New York Times, "Mr. Obama did not beat the super PACs; he joined them." His re-election, therefore, doesn’t settle the question raised by the Supreme Court; it simply postpones it.
Rather than letting the Citizens United experiment in confidence play out over the next several elections, we can find evidence now, by looking to political history. How has the “appearance of influence” affected faith in other elected governments? History tells us that such faith is far easier to tear down than to rebuild. And one of the best examples of this faith under strain comes from one of the earliest experiments in elected government: the Roman Republic.
Our political culture is saturated with historical appeals to the founders, but when the founders themselves wanted to make such appeals, they turned overwhelmingly to Rome. As inspiration and as practical example, that republic’s history is written into our own. For Alexander Hamilton, the republic represented "the utmost height of human greatness." The authors of the Federalist Papers cited the republic as an influence on the American Constitution 14 separate times. In early America, Rome before Caesar served as the quintessential republic of virtue; its collapse was the ultimate cautionary tale of political corruption.
A crucial part of that story was the corrosive influence of money in politics. To be sure, Rome was never a true democracy; its elections were always designed to heavily favor the wealthy and well-born. Further, the kind of money that consumed Roman politics—personal spending by wealthy candidates—isn’t the prime source of controversy in our time. Nevertheless, the last generation of the Republic’s politics was dominated by two trends: universal complaints about money’s corrupting effect on politics and near universal unwillingness to do anything about it.
Ancient politicians were just as skilled as modern ones at identifying and exploiting loopholes in election law. In Rome, the key loophole lay in the fuzzy distinction between ambitus (electoral bribery) and mere benignitas (generosity). Roman elections were often won on the strength of free food, drinks, entertainment, and sometimes hard cash offered directly to voters and financed by private fortunes. In fact, Roman campaign slogans were sometimes inscribed on the bottom of commemorative wine cups—you could drain the cup and find out whom to vote for. Most of the Roman elite relied on the gentleman’s agreement that the line between bribery and generosity would not be strictly patrolled. At worst, rank vote-buying was something your opponents engaged in; you, on the other hand, were simply being a good neighbor.
That explains the curious fact that continually rising penalties for corruption had almost no deterrent effect. Toward the republic’s end, the penalty for ambitus had risen to 10 years’ exile. The general Pompey, who presented himself as a clean-government advocate when he wasn’t buying elections for his allies, even proposed raising the statute of limitations for corruption charges to two decades, meaning that virtually no Roman politician would be safe.
Yet the money continued to flow: Politicians able to afford the massive bribes were usually able to afford protection after the fact. Worse, with no enforceable limits on spending and a heavy premium on one-upsmanship, the price of elections skyrocketed. Five years before the republic collapsed, Cicero made an astonishing claim: The wealthy had injected so much cash into election season that the interest rate in Rome temporarily doubled.
Nor could the power of money be confined to election season—its influence spread throughout the republic’s government. Rome had long sent politicians to govern a province after their year in office; ultimately, they felt entitled to fleece those provinces in order to recoup their election losses, a practice that spread deep resentment of the capital. The biographer Plutarch records bribery of civil servants, who were paid off to erase debts owed to the public purse. Jury verdicts, too, were regularly bought and paid for.