Campaign finance: even billionaires deserve free speech

Big money isn't the problem in US politics - the lack of big ideas is.

As the US Congress meanders towards its August recess, senators and representatives will be looking forward to escaping the long sweaty days of a Washington DC summer. They have much to think about, however, as they consider the proposed constitutional amendment on campaign finance, the ramifications of which should make them perspire.

The ‘democracy for all’ amendment, which if passed would become the twenty-eighth amendment to the US Constitution, aims to reverse the impact of Supreme Court rulings such as Citizens United v Federal Electoral Commission and McCutcheon v Federal Electoral Commission. It is said that both of these rulings have created a political climate in which wealthy donors and corporations can effectively buy an election result through unlimited donations and financing. The joint resolution (SJ Res 19 and HJ Res 119) will first ‘set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence an election’, and second, ‘may distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections’.

The first part is self-explanatory, but to understand the implications of the second we first need to decipher what ‘artificial entity’ means. As defined by most states, an artificial entity is any corporation. This would include for-profit businesses, but could also include NGOs, charities, think tanks and activist groups. In fact, it would include media organisations and much of the press, too – although, there is also a third part to the proposed amendment which states that ‘nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress or the states the power to abridge the freedom of the press’.

This means that large media empires, often owned by extremely wealthy people, are being granted a right that another person in any other ‘artificial entity’ (wealthy or otherwise) will not have. If we follow the logic of the proposed amendment, surely the group we should be most worried about in terms of exerting political influence is the mass media? But this is where the logic of the amendment becomes twisted. In picking and choosing who can speak freely, and how loudly they can speak, the proposed amendment begins to look increasingly arbitrary.

One of the great achievements of America’s First Amendment is that it has always aimed to protect freedom of speech without limitations. It doesn’t say you can speak freely as long as it isn’t too loud; it doesn’t say you can have free speech unless you are a billionaire; and it certainly doesn’t say you can speak freely so long as you don’t team up with others to find a way to fund your speech. In fact, it does not address the financial underpinnings of speech at all. The town crier of yesteryear has been replaced by billboards, yard signs and TV attack ads, and today’s amplification comes with higher and higher costs attached. But what has not changed is that voters and the public are not stupid. We do not just take what we hear or see and act on it like mindless robots.

A good example of the fallacy of the power of campaign spending is highlighted by the case of Republican Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, and his loss to Tea Party candidate David Prat in a recent Virginia primary. As was widely reported at the time, Cantor managed to spend more on steakhouse dinners, schmoozing his potential supporters, than his unheard-of opponent spent on his entire campaign. In total, Cantor is said to have outspent Brat 40 to 1 (Brat’s total campaign expenditure was expected to be under $200,000). Whether you agree with Brat’s politics or not, one has to admire his ability to have engaged the voters of Virginia and persuaded them to vote for him. It was his politics that won the election, not his chequebook.

The promoters of the proposed amendment make two assumptions that are both patronising and dangerous. The first is that money corrupts, and that all politicians are corruptible. I would argue that many politicians are individuals who want to do good for their communities and society in general. No doubt there is the occasional backhander, but I don’t believe this is the norm. The second and most dangerous assumption is that we, the people, are not capable of handling the 24-hour onslaught of today’s saturation campaigning, and need protection from big, bad corporations with cash to burn on political campaigning. This is flawed on two levels. First, as has been proven again and again in elections throughout the US, the richest candidate does not always win. Second, those armchair activists writing to their elected officials to encourage spending limits always exempt themselves from the pernicious influence of cash-heavy campaigning. You see, they are worried about ‘the masses’, the everyday blue-collar workers, who will supposedly be all-too-easily influenced by what they see on Fox News and then act like zombies at the polling booth.

Controversy over campaign finance and the harsh reality that money is a necessity in politics is nothing new. Even the notoriously frugal Abraham Lincoln, after virtually bankrupting himself, had to rely on wealthy backers to run his successful presidential campaign. It is true that, in today’s money, Lincoln’s campaign cost very little compared with the billions spent now. But Lincoln didn’t win the presidency because of the money behind him. Lincoln won because of his political conviction, his renowned oratory skills, and his ability to persuade his peers that his ideas were worth voting for.

It is today’s politics, devoid of strong leaders, strong ideologies and real moral conviction, that has created a situation where spending becomes a key issue. When James Madison drafted the Bill of Rights, he and his enlightened peers believed their fellow men were potentially free-thinking, rational and autonomous agents, capable of enjoying ever-more freedom. Today we need a similar communal self-confidence; and we need to resist the calls to limit how much freedom we can handle, no matter the cost.

Neil Ross is a writer based in New York.

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