Don’t Get Me Started: Free-For-All Speech
How the right to express our views evolved into the right of corporate persons to shout us down.
I grew up on New Yorker cartoons. My parents had several coffeetable books full of cartoons by Charles Addams and other cartoonists that my sister and I would pore over until we got the jokes.
One of those cartoons seems appropo in this electoral season. Circa 1935, in a time when news reels preceded the feature movie, it depicts a group of “One hundredth of one percenters” bundled up in diamonds and furs. “We’re on our way to the Trans Lux to hiss Roosevelt,” reads the tag line.
The rich have always pooh-poohed populists in this country and Barack Obama is right down there with Roosevelt in the Populist Pan-demon-eum of the Republican faithful.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case in 2010 made it a whole lot easier for the super rich to hiss populists. Not just hiss, but distract, confuse and shout down.
It’s a little complicated. The money, or rather “free $peech,” has to come from a corporation and must be $pent by an un-affiliated Political Action Committee. Which means that, while any or all of the PAC staff may have worked for, or may, in the future, work for the candidate again, the PAC may not directly cooperate with the candidate’s campaign committee. There doesn’t even have to be one of those “I approve of this message” messages at the end of the political message.
Therein lies one facet of the insideous nature of the Citizens United ruling: It became possible to deface democracy with ugly, anonymous graffiti.
Some pundits believe that a lack of civil involvement is at the root of our poisoned political atmosphere. In fact it is a tidal wave of uncivil involvement that lies at the root of our problem. The playground is overrun by bullies butting in on other people’s games, shouting their songs down and arguing like fools or the psychotic.
Which brings me to another New Yorker cartoon. A recent addition to the canon, it features a couple watching a politician on the television in dismay. The husband says to the wife, “Is he psychotic or just appealing to his base?”
Just before the Iowa caucuses, gambling billionaire Sheldon Edelman transfered $20 million worth of “free $peech” from the bank account of one of his numerous corporations to Newt Gingrich, or rather to a bank account of the Friends of Friends of Newt Gingrich Political Action Committee or some such pseudo nom, to be spent on negative advertising, focus groups, push polls, spin doctors and purple prose meisters, sandwiches with the crust cut off for further fundraising efforts and sandwiches, crust-on, for precinct captains.
The PACs don’t even need to spend the free $peech on speech. Nothing needs to be said about where a candidate stands on the really important issues facing our country.
But never mind what it’s really used for, it’s all free speech, all $20 million of it, according to our sitting Supreme Court. It’s not a bribe, it’s a retainer fee on the politician’s ear. It’s not a gift, although the best gift you could ever give a politician is the office he’s running for.
For all the Republican bluster about “activist judges” and the need for a strict interpretation of the US constitution, you never hear a word from them about what may be the most radical deviation from the original wording of the constitution. At the time it was written, free speech meant standing on a soap box and personally letting your fellow citizens know what you thought. And, more to the point, why you thought what you thought. Either that or you printed up a bunch of broadsheets and pasted them to the sides of buildings.
The old way had numerous advantages for democracy. For one thing, listeners could consider the source. If some fool, canny or otherwise, spouted utter bull, we could ignore him. As it is, we are likely to be assaulted by the same tripe during the next 14 commercial breaks with no clue, other than which direction the slings and arrows are coming from, as to the identity of the loud-mouthed fool. And with the knowledge and craft that characterizes today’s public relations profession, the “political message” is likely to be utterly persuasive in a subtle, subconscious, insideous way.
One of the Republicans’ favorite authors, James Burnham, hit the nail on the head. In his book The Machiavellians, written in 1943, he argued and developed his theory that the emerging new élite would better serve its own interests if it retained some democratic trappings —political opposition, a free press, and a controlled “circulation of the élites,” where the glimmer of a hope might remain that the best candidate wins, not the one with the monied connections.
It comes down to whether we want to live in a democratic political system or a capitalist political system. Mitt Romney and many in the Republican party really don’t believe we live in a democracy but rather a republic where the truest citizens are the richest citizens.
As Supreme Court Justice Stevens said in his dissent in Citzens United: “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.” And that is what they would like us to believe.
But apathy and capitulation aren’t the way we do things in America.
There are many ways to take back our democracy. One way is to make our voices heard across the country for the causes we beleive in. Ordinary citizens don’t need to be limited to their own neighborhoods in their political activism. Back in 2006 I helped MoveOn.org defeat Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum in his run for reelection to the US senate. I hosted a half dozen house parties where, using scripts and lists provided by MoveOn.org we called hundreds of fence-sitting voters in Pennsylvania, as wll as acoupel of races in Arizona and Colorado. When Santorum was defeated it was one of the proudest days in my life and all I did was use my right to free speech to affect an election on the other side of the country.
Another way to take back our democracy is to pass an amendment restricting corporations’ political activities. If you haven’t signed the petition to put a referendum on corporation personhood on the ballot in Salt Lake City next November, go to http://movetoamend.org/ut-salt-lake-city and find out where you can sign the petition. Do it before the deadline, April 15.