Disclaimer: While this piece is based on the United States, the principle applies anywhere.
Nothing in this piece is new information. The debate over campaign finance comes around every election cycle, and during relevant legal challenges. What never ceases to surprise or disappoint, however, is how quickly the issue dies down after each time the spotlight is placed on it. While this is also true for most issues, campaign finance influences the way every other piece of legislation is made, and as such is arguably the most important issue there is.
In its purest form, the term “lobbying” is used to describe the process through which citizens in a democratic society are able to influence the way their government operates. Unfortunately, this word can now only be used in a euphemistic sense. It’s high time to drop its use entirely and start calling it what it really is: Corruption.
Legal, so not criminal, but corruption nonetheless.
Under the shamelessly disingenuous guise of free expression, we were told that corporations, as “people” (another crime against the way concepts work), are entitled to make direct and unlimited financial contributions into political cycles (not direct direct, but through easily navigable loopholes provided via nebulously crafted political action committees). With the same excuse, we were told that a limit on an individual’s aggregate ability to spend on political parties as akin to limiting their ability to “speak” freely, and the limit was raised from $123,200 (already an amount simply unattainable for most people) to $3.6 million. Why not just go around poor neighbourhoods and shit directly into people’s mouths, you ask? Because that shit should cost them money.
Gleefully overlooked is the fact that actual speech is limited only by the individual’s determination, or lack thereof, to express his or herself, and as such is able to transcend economic restrictions. We are nonetheless expected to regard money-as-speech as being a level playing field in the same way. The fact that the vast majority of the people don’t have the means to compete doesn’t seem to matter. An honest analogy would be one man with a media conglomerate, and another who is permitted to write only in Morse code, in a language he doesn’t understand, using an ink-less pen he holds only with the hair on his left ass-cheek.
A casual examination of the effects of money in politics exposes its catastrophic consequences. The word “catastrophic”, in this context, can be employed completely unburdened by even trace amounts of exaggeration or hyperbole. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the driving force behind the denial of man-made climate change is a product of the energy industry’s financial influence on individual (though many) political campaigns. It’s not hyperbolic to suggest that political and diplomatic support for (and ignorance of) systematic human rights violations is due in large part to pressure exerted on politicians from lobbying groups. It’s not conspiratorial to say legislators let financial institutions literally write their own laws, not to mention allow them to gamble with everyone else’s money.
In his majority opinion in McCutcheon vs. the Federal Election Commission , Chief Justice John Roberts says the following (bold mine): “Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials.” For good measure, he adds that “these scenarios are…divorced from reality”. Yes, Justice Roberts. Completely divorced from reality.
The Supreme Court, mercifully, is not without its rational actors. In his dissenting opinion on the same case, Justice Stephen Breyer sums it up quite nicely (the bold, again, is mine): “What has this to do with corruption? It has everything to do with corruption. Corruption breaks the constitutionally necessary “chain of communication” between the people and their representatives. It derails the essential speech-to-government-action tie. Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. Insofar as corruption cuts the link between political thought and political action, a free marketplace of political ideas loses its point.”
A debate in the public sphere should, without exception, be decided by the merits of each argument, and that simply cannot happen when the conversations are being moulded by those who have the money to do so. As such, an alternative system is desperately needed. In this blogger’s humble opinion, such a system would be a publicly funded one.
The problem lies in how to establish a fair public funding system would work. I’m not unsympathetic to the benefits private funding can have on new candidates, and certainly on new parties, who need to get their message out, but as former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens put it, “a candidate need not flood the airways with ceaseless sound-bites of trivial information in order to provide voters with reasons to support her.” And given the content of most political communication, and the fact that in 2012, 85% of President Obama’s $404 million advertising expenditure went to negative ads, while republican challenger Mitt Romney diverted 91% of his $492 million ad expenditure to negative ads, Justice Steven’s point of view can hardly be argued with.
Former President Jimmy Carter has stated in interviews that he raised no money in either of his elections (against Gerald Ford and Ronald “Dickhead” Reagan, respectively) , and that there were no smear campaigns. Funding for these elections derived primarily, but not exclusively, from aptly named, and since discontinued, “tax check-off” systems. These consisted of an optional box to tick on one’s federal tax forms, asking if they want a fixed amount of their taxes ($2.00 during the Carter elections, and at no extra cost) towards the presidential campaign fund, which would then be split between the candidates. Anyone who paid taxes could contribute the same amount of money. While the candidates themselves could put a limit on what they themselves and their family could contribute to their own campaign ($50,000 at the time) eligibility of a candidate would depend on their having raised a certain amount of money (which would then be matched by the government to offset costs) from a wide geographical area of the country. This would be one possibility. It can objectively be said that it was better than the way it is today, but I make no claim that it is perfect or that I have a perfect answer, certainly any past idea would need to be modernised to reflect changes in society. All I know is that the conversation needs to begin on a wide scale, and now.