20 January 2012

What is 'third-party speech?'

In The Atlantic, Wendy Kaminer comments on negotiations between Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and his presumptive Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, to discourage "third parties" from advertising during their upcoming contest. It's not what you might think: they're not scheming to suppress the Green or Libertarian or any other independent party. By "third party," Kaminer means issue-advocacy groups who presumably support Brown or Warren already. They are "third parties" in the sense that they aren't officially subordinated to the Republican or Democratic party, but they are aligned along Bipolarchy lines. Kaminer also refers to these entities as "independent advocacy" groups. She ought to look for a better term, since both "third party" and "independent," in this context, are insults to the intelligence.

Still, Kaminer is right to condemn Brown and Warren, though their scheme is still subject to further negotiation. As she notes, the contenders don't actually have any power to prevent advocacy groups from running ads; all they're proposing, apparently, is penalizing themselves should such ads appear. While the idea of them contributing some proportion of the cost of those ads to charity is a charming notion, it would do nothing to deter the advocacy groups, though Warren is reportedly making sinister noises about getting media outlets to refuse their advertising.

Some observers might want to cheer the candidates on, however, if they see this as a bipartisan campaign of principle against the influence of irresponsible money in politics. Of course, both candidates will still be able to spend as much money as they please, i.e. as much as wealthy people can give them, on their own ads. And here's where Kaminer is right from a historical perspective. From a civil-libertarian standpoint, she sees these negotiations as another attempt by political elites to suppress "independent" speech, but I think we can leave the "elite" label out of it. The current idea that only the candidates, or their parties, should advertise their causes is a complete reversal of how political campaigning once worked or was supposed to work. In the distant past, the idea that a candidate for office would advertise himself was abhorrent; it would have betrayed vainglorious ambition on the candidate's part. The ideal of the past was that, were there any advertising at all -- make that an issue for another time, -- it would all be "third party" advertising in Kaminer's sense of the word. The ideal, admittedly, was mostly mythical; ambitious men found ways to arrange for people to "spontaneously" nominate those worthies who reluctantly put their careers aside to answer the call. But at least this fiction kept alive some sense that true agency rested with the people, who could in theory select anyone rather than choosing from a limited menu of party lines. The current concern among party leaders for what Kaminer calls "controlling the narrative" seems contemptuous toward any idealistic notion of spontaneous popular agency. Not only will the major parties tell you who you can vote for, but they will dictate the terms of the discussion before the election. They want to make sure that you vote for them for their reasons, not yours. That's why they seem as hostile to "third party" advertising, at least in Massachusetts, as they are to actual third parties. Maybe that will drive the one "third party" group into the arms of the other some day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ideally, all Americans who are sick of mud-slinging campaigns should sign a pact/petition that they will boycott every television and radio station that runs PAC-funded commercials for the rest of the campaign season.

Maybe then commercial broadcasting would forego the revenue they garnish from such advertisers in favor of keeping their ratings up.