How Citizens United has transformed campaigns: An introduction to Big Sky, Big Money

About six months ago, we started a new project, a special collaboration with Frontline on PBS, to break through the noise around one key issue: the fallout from the Supreme Court's decision two years ago in a case called Citizens United.

The justices ruled that the government is not allowed to limit political spending by corporations and unions, which means this election cycle is being is fueled by more money than ever -- like, in the billions of dollars.

Part of the noise -- part of the reason it matters -- is the disagreement over how much all that money matters, how it affects the way you and I vote, and whether money corrupts the entire political process in this country. For one side of that disagreement, a lawyer named James Bopp.

"It doesn't corrupt the process," said Bopp. "It's necessary for the process. To communicate, you have to spend money, so you have to have money to communicate. See, and that's called speech."

Bopp's one of the main characters I met while I was away reporting this story for Frontline this summer. He's the guy behind the Citizens United ruling. He's been fighting limits on money in politics -- and mostly winning -- all over the country. And, he told me, not only does money not corrupt: "We need more spending," Bopp said.

Does that mean there's not enough information out there in American politics?

"Definitely," Bopp said. "If a third of the people in the United States cannot name the vice president of the United States, a majority of the people do not know who their congressman is, or who their senators are... no, that's not enough information. They need a lot more information."

So, more money, more information. That's one side. The side that won the Citizens United ruling, as it happens.

But obviously part of this noise is how many strong opinions there are about money in politics. Including from some of the people who use that money to do politics. I spent some time in Washington D.C., for this story, and wound up talking to a guy named Rodell Mollineau.

"How much is too much?" Mollineau said. "You know when you've got 15 or 16 people ponying up $2-$3-$4-$5-$10 million at a time, I don't think that is necessarily good for democracy."

Mollineau runs a liberal super PAC called American Bridge 21st Century, which is fed by the money that Citizens United allows, but he's not wild about it.

I was all over the place this summer reporting this Frontline piece: Montana, Colorado, Washington D.C., Connecticut, Indiana. We found an honestly amazing story about campaign finance -- one that cuts through all the noise, I promise you.

We're going to air a radio story every week this month as part of our televison collaboration with Frontline. The film is called "Big Sky, Big Money," about the dark secrets of campaign finance this election season. Mark your calendars: October 30. Me on television. It's gonna be a good one.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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