27 December 2010

Time to stop the bucks?

The new issue of The Nation includes reader responses to a November article, "The Money & Media Election Complex," by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, that hint at a wider awakening to the need for radical election reform. Nichols and McChesney bemoan the public's dependence for information on campaign advertising that isn't subject to the same official scrutiny for accuracy to which commercial advertising has been historically subject. The First Amendment sanctification of political speech and the Supreme Court's equation of spending with speech has made political advertising unaccountable to any objective authority; the Constitution appears to entrust no one with the power to tell a political advertiser that he has no right to lie. The authors of the original article describe a dire state of affairs, but two letter writers feel that they didn't offer strong enough remedies.

From Austin TX Cyndi Collen writes that Nichols and McChesney's article "needs to be the basis of a push for campaign finance reform" that should extend to "a ban on political advertising on TV because it's dangerous to your health, like the ban on TV cigarette peddling." From Corvalis, OR, Leo W. Quirk scoffs at the authors' recommendation that the government provide free ad time to candidates in order to level the playing field. "Since, by the writers' account, TV campaign ads absorb two-thirds of all campaign funds, wouldn't the proper solution be a legal ban on those TV ads? TV campaign ads are already banned in England. Let's think big. Repeal any First Amendment protection for election campaign ads on television, radio and billboards, and prohibit all such ads. Candidates could still use debates, newspaper, magazine and Internet ads, mailers, fliers, books and phone calls."

Constitutional jurists would probably scoff at Collen's analogy, while Quirk's complaints have been anticipated by the authors. They look to expedients like public financing because they acknowledge that, given prevailing precedents from the Supreme Court, "we don't see any way to avoid the requirement of a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling." When Quirk writes about repealing this or that, nothing short of amending the constitution will empower him to do so. Any such amendment will be a tough sell, because every opponent will portray it as an abolition of freedom of speech, a conspiracy of "government" to silence private-sector dissent. I think the effort should still be made, but reformers should also pursue the intermediate option of regulating political advertising to establish a standard grounded in truth and fact. This option, too, will present challenges, since all political propagandizing includes a degree of speculation (e.g. that your opponent's election will be bad for your constituents) that is obviously unverifiable. Also, ideological assertions aren't exactly falsifiable; you can't necessarily prove that someone's assertion that his opponents course is "wrong" is "wrong" if we don't all agree on the premises involved. Nevertheless, some authority should exist to require advertisers to eliminate gross misrepresentations from TV or radio spots before they're aired. Explaining to the public that the First Amendment doesn't entitle people to lie should not be that hard a sell; nor should amending the Constitution if necessary to make that fact more obvious. In the long term, we should try to get political advertising off the airwaves if no way can be found to level the TV playing field without making candidates dependent on the state. Millionaires will find other ways to influence people; it's not as if they were helpless before TV was invented. The long-term goals remain the same: prevent a class-system of candidates based on funds; liberate politicians from the burden of fundraising so they can do their proper work; and don't enable lying in the name of the right to dissent. Any step toward any of those goals is a positive step.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the easiest way to accomplish campaign finance reform is to simply make a constitutional amendment stating that "Only American citizens can be legally allowed to contribute money to political campaigns."

Simple, yet elegant. Something both sides should be able to agree on, because to disagree would be to open oneself up to questions of patriotism and "selling out to foreign interests". Maybe a sub-paragraph stating that any citizen caught donating for a non-citizen suffers a penalty.