2012 Election Issues: Democracy & the Citizens United Case

Students come up with a working definition for democracy, then watch and discuss an animated short on the Citizens United Case. Homework prepares students for a liberal vs. conservative discussion over whether the ruling puts our democracy at risk.


By Marieke van Woerkom


Students will:

  • share their associations with the term "democracy"
  • come up with a working definition for democracy
  • consider other forms of government besides democracy by discussing a Winston Churchill quote
  • watch and discuss in small groups an animated short on the history of the Supreme Court case of Citizens United versus FEC
  • for homework, research the liberal and conservative perspectives on Citizens United versus FEC
  • for the next lesson, participate in a dialogue with one half of students presenting the liberal perspective and the other half presenting the conservative perspective

Social & Emotional Skills:

  • Exploring the idea of democracy
  • Small group work 
  • Negotiation/dialogue, including the communication skills of active listening and assertiveness (next lesson)

Materials needed:

For homework: 

All students:

Students researching the liberal perspective:

Students researching the conservative perspective:



Democracy Web 

(13 minutes)

Write the word "democracy" at the center of the board or a piece of chart paper and circle it. Ask students to volunteer their free associations with the word. Chart their free associations around the circled word. Draw lines from the circled word to the charted associations, forming a web. If some associations are obviously linked, connect them with lines. Take responses for several minutes and/or while attention remains high.

Next, ask students to share any observations they have about the web. Ask if anyone can come up with a definition for "democracy." Consider using the Merriam-Webster.com definition below to compare to the definition your students come up with. Discuss.

Definition of DEMOCRACY (from Merriam-Webster.com)

1 a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections 
2 : a political unit that has a democratic government 
3 capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the United States  
4 : the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority 
5 : the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges 


Pair Share 

(12 minutes)

Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister in the mid 20th century, once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."

Ask students to discuss this quote in pairs, by considering the following questions:

  • What are their thoughts about this quote?
  • What other forms of government may Winston Churchill have been thinking of?
  • Why do you think Winston Churchill is as ambivalent about democracy as this quote seems to indicate?
  • What are your thoughts about the state of democracy in the U.S., considering what you know about the current presidential election and other recent elections?

Back in the large group, ask students to share some of the things discussed in their pairs.


The Story of Citizens United 

(23 minutes)

Introduce the next part of your lesson by saying something about the U.S. Constitution:

Adopted in 1787, the American Constitution, is often viewed as the world's first formal blueprint for a modern democracy. Although the Constitution did not yet extend voting rights to the majority of Americans, it nevertheless pointed the way towards a fully democratic future.

From the very beginning, some people argued that the American Constitution did not provide enough safeguards for the rights of the individual. In response, the inaugural congress invited James Madison to draft a series of amendments, ten of which were adopted. These first ten amendments came to be known collectively as the Bill of Rights. The Bill was ratified in 1791. The prevailing theme was the protection of the individual against oppressive authority.

This theme has continued to resonate in American politics ever since and is being raised again as an important issue in this year's presidential election.

Ask students to watch Annie Leonard's Clip "The Story of Citizen's United v. FEC" at: http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-citizens-united-v-fec/

If time allows, have your students watch the clip once all the way through, then watch it again a second time* to take notes before having a small group or full classroom discussion using some or all of these questions:

  • What are their thoughts about the clip?
  • What does Annie Leonard say about the crisis of democracy we are currently in?
  • What does Leonard say about the history (and current role) of corporations?
  • According to Leonard , how do people and corporations differ? How do their motivations differ?
  • Leonard notes that corporations are run by people. Why then do corporations operate so differently from people? 
  • What role does the government have to play in this?
  • Who does Leonard say is supposed to write the laws in a democracy? 
  • What has been the corporations' key strategy for sneaking into our democracy according to Leonard ? 
  • How does this relate to the Supreme Court case of Citizens United versus FEC? What was the Supreme Court ruling in this case? What was their rationale? What have been the effects?
  • Do you think corporations should be treated the same as people? Why/why not? What does Leonard say has been the consequence of treating corporations as people?
  • Our democracy is in trouble. But according to Leonard we can save it. What does she suggest we do? What are your thoughts about this?

* if time is short, ask students to watch the clip once only


(2 minutes)

Ask some volunteers to share one thing they learned today.


In the video students just watched, Annie Leonard makes the argument that the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United is gutting our democracy. In response she says that "It's easy to get angry, but it's time we got smart and realized that the heart of our problem is not that we have bad lawmakers, we have a democracy in crisis."

Getting smart is about gaining a better understanding and awareness of the issues so that we know how to better respond and take action. For homework, students will be asked to research some of the arguments Leonard makes from both the liberal perspective (which Leonard shares) and from a more conservative perspective.

Adam Liptak's January 21, 2010, New York Times article "Justices, 5-4, Reject Corporate Spending Limit" provides arguments from both the more liberal and conservative wings of the Supreme court, citing the different justices making their arguments both for and against Citizens United.

Ask all students to read Liptak's article for homework. 


Next, assign half of your students to further research the liberal perspective on how Citizens United has affected democracy in the U.S. The other half of students will research the conservative perspective. Explain that students are researching these perspectives so that they can participate in a role play. In the role play, they'll be asked to argue for or against the idea that our democracy is in crisis as a result of the Citizens United ruling.

When you reconvene in class next time, set up a fish bowl with an inner circle of 10 chairs and an outer circle of the remaining chairs set up around the inner 10 chairs. Invite 5 students who researched the liberal perspective and 5 students who researched the conservative perspective to seat themselves in the inner circle. The rest of students will start by listening and observing(from the outside circle) the dialogue of those in the inner circle.

If time allows, you can start out by having the two groups (liberal and conservative) come together to prepare their opening statement as a group. If there is no time, proceed to the next step.

Invite two students from opposing perspectives to make an opening argument as to why our democracy is in crisis, or not, as a result of Citizens United. Next open up the dialogue to all 10 students. Instruct those "on the outside" to listen only. If they have something to contribute, they can tap one of the students in the inner circle on the shoulder to exchange seats quietly. That is, the student in the outer circle moves to the inner circle to engage in the dialogue. This way all students are engaged and all have an opportunity to share their perspective, despite the fact that only 10 students are part of the dialogue at a given time.


Homework Readings for "Liberal" Group:

Ask students who will be researching the more liberal perspective to read the excerpts below:

Excerpt One:

The Supreme Court thought non-candidate spending would be "independent" and therefore non-corrupting. This proposition not only beggars belief, it led to the rise of SuperPACs, which are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts because they don't contribute directly to candidates and are purportedly independent. These Super PACs, more than 250 of which registered between their creation in 2010 and the end of 2011, have super-charged the influence of the biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals. The Supreme Court still recognizes that contributions to candidates can be corrupting, which is why direct contributions can be limited; if outside groups coordinate spending with a candidate it is treated like a direct contribution and can also be limited. Rules exist to prevent coordination between candidates and outside groups. But these rules have been reduced to such swiss cheese that they barely maintain the pretense of independence. That is how we've ended up with candidate SuperPACs - founded by former campaign associates, funded by family and friends, explicitly supporting one candidate, who is allowed to fundraise for these groups himself. These candidate SuperPACs are making a mockery of contribution limits by running figure eights around and through the coordination rules; the idea that they are independent in any real sense is absurd. ...

Excerpt Two:

The Court turned its back on the reality recognized by political actors for a century: concentrated wealth has a distorting effect on democracy, therefore, winners in the economic marketplace should not be allowed to dominate the political marketplace. Before Citizens United, the Supreme Court recognized in Austin v Michigan Chamber of Commerce that the government had a compelling interest in protecting our democracy from "the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the help of the corporate form and that have little or no correlation to the public's support for the corporation's political ideas." The Court that decided Austin was rightly worried that corporate wealth can dominate the political process and "unfairly influence elections." Citizens United disavowed this understanding. The public supports the prior consensus of the Court. Shortly after the Citizens United decision, 78% of poll respondents agreed that the amount that corporations are allowed to spend in order to influence campaigns should be limited, and 70% believed that corporations have too much control over elections already. It's hard to escape the conclusion that Government of and by big money supporters can only be for big money supporters."

- Both excerpts are from "10 Ways Citizens United Endangers Democracy" by Liz Kennedy

Other resources for this group of students to use are:

Homework Readings for "Conservative" Group:

Ask students who will be researching the more conservative perspective to read the excerpts below:

Excerpt One:

Distorted political ads sponsored by nondescript groups obviously existed before Citizens United. Did the average American ever know that the true source of the infamous and morally depraved Willie Horton ad that helped torpedo Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign was sponsored by a PAC, Americans for Bush? Did that group ever receive appropriate scrutiny at the time? Beyond that, did typical voters really care all that much? ...

During the 2000 election, the billionaire Wyly brothers' mysterious 527 group, "Republicans for Clean Air," ran millions of dollars in ads in key primary states touting then candidate George W. Bush's claimed exemplary environmental record. These questionable ads were cited by some as instrumental in helping Bush defeat his main primary challenger, John McCain. Do you remember the Wyly brothers' 527 group? Me neither. 527 groups were in most significant ways left wholly unregulated and, with the exception of the Swift Boaters in 2004, received relatively sparse media coverage.

It seems dishonest to therefore hold Citizens United as the sole harbinger for the monied takeover of political campaign spending-especially since even before the decision came down about half of the states did not have such restrictions on corporate spending in place. What It has certainly done is to energize the debate over money and politics. In this regard it has done the voting public a service, leaving them better educated about the finance process and more critical of political advertising.

Of equal importance, it has also exposed the critical need for much greater transparency in the campaign finance process and greater walls of separation between candidates and independent backers.

- from Newsflash! Citizens United has been good for campaign finance transparency
by Mark Caramanic, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Excerpt Two:

The very idea that political speech in an open democracy can be "corrupting" rests on fundamentally illiberal assumptions about individuals' capacity for reasoned deliberation and self-government. The First Amendment was designed to allow all speakers to put their messages out into the public debate, be they rich or poor, vicious or virtuous. The underlying principle is that over the long run, a society of free individuals is best equipped to evaluate the merits of political arguments for themselves, and that a distrustful government cannot ban speech out of the worry that its citizens will be unduly swayed by it. Rich individuals and talented polemicists have always been permitted to put out quantities and qualities of speech that may exert a disproportionate influence on society, but political opponents and voters have always been trusted to evaluate these speakers' arguments for themselves, respond with counter-arguments, and ultimately make up their own minds about the truth of any matter of controversy. Especially with the explosion of diverse viewpoints and avenues of expression that have come from the Internet media revolution, it simply defies common sense to think that any corporation or union could ever hope to so overwhelm the political debate as to prevent dissenting voices from being heard and reasonably contemplated by the electorate. Of course, this freewheeling political dialogue may be messy, imperfect, and prone to abuses, but the First Amendment makes it constitutionally preferable to censorship targeted at disfavored groups"

- From Defending Citizens United by Anthony Dick in the National Review.

Other resources for this group of students to use are:

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.org by Marieke van Woerkom. We welcome your comments. Please email them to:lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.