Polarizing America through Citizens United

Research Question:

Why is American politics so polarized? In social media, you see debates that never seem to get anywhere, filled with people listening only to reply and not truly understanding the opposition. In Congress, instead of hearing about bipartisan progress, we hear much more of filibusters, walkouts, and resignations. Gerrymandering, campaign finance, shifting demographics, media bias, and socioeconomic inequality all play into the growing divide in America, but how do these factors play into each other and which deserves the most attention?

Thesis Moment:

Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission was a Supreme Court decision that lifted all corporate restrictions on political spending. This meant that corporations could now spend unlimited sums of money in elections, typically through independent political action committees called super PACs. Most of the factors listed in the previous section have long affected America, but the Citizens United decision has revolutionized the campaign finance ecosystem in the past decade and marked the inception of a new political powerhouse in the form super PACs.

As such, I will focus on the effects on Citizens United and examine how these ramifications contribute to an ever-polarizing political climate. Political polarization exists on both the voter and politician level, but Citizens United affects both parties in different ways. On the voter level, super PACs can dominate television ad time, flooding voters with a stream of often negative and misleading ads. Combined with the prevalence of existing media bias, these ads can lock voters in ideological bubbles and increase partisanship by removing the middle ground. On the politician level, the need for corporate backing to survive in DC forces politicians to become more responsive to donors rather than voters.

I will be using election spending data, voter behavior studies, and historical examples to draw the connection between campaign finance and polarization and highlight the destructive political effects of Citizens United.

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