In a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the principle has been forwarded that the right to free speech, as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution, also applies to money that is spent on campaign contributions and political advertising. Justice Antonin Scalia even said, during oral arguments in the 2006 case in which the Vermont Republican party sued the state over campaign contribution limits, “When you say, ‘You can’t spend more than this on your campaign,’ you’re saying, ‘You can’t say more than this.’ When you say, ‘You don’t need any more speech than this,’ that’s an odd thing for the United States Government to say.”
In this statement, Justice Scalia, adorable teddy-bear that he is, did a great job of showing just how limited is his typical level of analysis (thin, simplistic analysis is both standard and necessary to the conservative way of thinking).
Laws that limit spending are not made for the purpose of limiting speech at all. They are in place to keep the playing field somewhat level by preventing someone with money from having more “free speech” than someone with less cash. If spending is limited, in principle a rich person would have one voice, as would a poor person.
Spending allows a political actor to reach, and ostensibly convince, more people more effectively. If you and I have opposing views on a measure up for approval in the next election, we can both stand up and shout in a bar or on a street corner, write letters or e-mails, talk to our co-workers, etc. But if I have a big stack of cash lying around, I can put ads on TV and on the radio. I can put up billboards and take out newspaper ads. Of course, these ads would feature slick public-relations-firm-concocted slogans being delivered by a thirty-year-old, smartly-dressed mom from her perfectly clean kitchen. You wouldn’t stand a chance.
As usual, the externalities in this situation are among the most important effects: As I (in my theoretical fantasy role) spend more and more money on advertising, advertising rates go up – until there is no possible way you, my opponent, can pay them (or maybe you can buy one commercial to my ten). This process can eventually make the underfunded opponents of the desires of the rich and powerful into permanent losers. This is especially true if, with my money and influence, I push through legislation that gives me and my empire of corporations an advantage.
The recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission signals the beginning of the unfettered ability of corporations to exercise just the advantage I’m talking about. In this case the Roberts Court took full advantage of the opportunity for conservative activism and went way beyond the scope of the case before it to give exponentially more political power to money.
The decision allows corporations and unions to spend what they please. Some might think this evens it out – unions vs. corporations, but there are two problems: Giving these two entities the same rights to spend is like allowing both Mike Tyson and an eight-year-old girl to put brass knuckles on their fists, under their boxing gloves. In addition, unions do not represent the sum of the opposition to corporations and corporate aspirations. Corporations (with VERY few exceptions) exist solely to make more and more money, not to build “The Good Society.”
Belt yourselves in – we’re in for a steep fall.
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.
Tom also posts on thrustblog.blogspot.com