29 May 2015

Plutocracy's permanent campaign

George Will writes: "To the surprise of no one familiar with political hydrology, money has flowed through crevices in our (fortunately) still porous society, into super PACs." As far as he's concerned, that's a good thing. Will is one of the most consistent and unrelenting opponents of campaign-finance regulation among our opinionators. He sees super PACs as an unintended but welcome consequence of self-interestedly bipartisan efforts to limit how much people or groups can donate to political candidates. "Americans continue to exasperate reformers by finding new ways to speak about politics," he notes approvingly, as if McCain and Feingold and their supporters were opposed to a mass movement of conscientious citizens. Will seems to see the rise of super PACs as the best possible outcome, since it keeps the big money, in theory at least, out of the hands of the two major political parties. Both parties, in his view, unfairly seek to "control America's political conversation," but are thwarted, for now, by monied gadflies. "Super PACs can annoy parties by enabling inconvenient candidates to compete in primaries and can annoy even candidates they favor by forcing certain issues into the campaign dialogue," he notes. In this way, they enhance democracy by liberating our political discourse from the top-down model imposed by the two-party system, even though almost all super PACS end up endorsing one big party or the other in general elections.

Will remains obsessed with the idea that the "political class" wants to suppress uppity outsiders mainly in order to make it easier for themselves to get re-elected. For him, the great threat to liberty is always the state, which inevitably seeks to "control [the] political conversation." In his dystopian vision, if we aren't allowed to spend as much as we want on political advertising, the field will be left to state propaganda. There is no other way to beat state propaganda, he assumes, than by spending money. Because he fears the state above all -- because power corrupts and all that -- he seems blind to other people's concern that his own heroes, the people who fund the super PACs, are the ones actually trying to control rather than liberate the political conversation. 

Apologists for unlimited campaign donations and unlimited spending on advocacy advertising always deny that this kind of money corrupts politics. Their idealistic assumption is that the donor selects the candidate or cause that already reflects his or her views, and that so long as voters can make up their own minds at the ballot box campaign donations can never rise to a harmful level. Yet who can watch Republican presidential candidates curry favor with Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers without suspecting that the candidates aren't merely running on their records but trimming their sails to catch the wind from these sugardaddies' moneybags? To argue that Democrats do the same is only to amplify the point. Will's current column is concerned with issue-advocacy advertising rather than outright electioneering, but isn't it self-evident that by "forcing certain issues into the campaign dialogue" the super PACs are using money to change politicians' minds? Well, don't we all have a right to try to change their minds? Certainly, but when you compare my ability to do so with Sheldon Adelson's -- or, if you prefer, a labor union's -- doesn't it seem obvious that those with more money are taking control of the political conversation from those who ideally have ultimate control, the voters?

As Will sees it, voters ultimately control very little. His latest argument against campaign-finance regulation is that Congress has power under the Constitution only to regulate the "manner" of elections, and that an originalist reading of the document shows that "manner" refers only to practical arrangements for voting -- when, where, by whom and how to keep score. Granting that Jefferson's description of a constitutional wall separating church and state is valid, Will envisions an analogical "separation of campaign and state." Citing scholar Bradley A. Smith, Will contends that elections are temporary, but campaigning is eternal.

“There is,” he says, “no ‘on’ or ‘off’ switch on American politics”; campaigning is constant. Elections are occasional, discrete episodes. And “the fact that ‘manner’ was combined with ‘times’ and ‘places’ in the Constitution further suggests that it refers to the details of carrying out the formal process of voting.” Listen, Smith says, to the logic of our language. “We do not talk about candidates making ‘election stops’ as they travel the country talking to voters, but rather ‘campaign stops.’ . . . We have a ‘campaign,’ at the conclusion of which voters cast ballots on ‘election day.’ ” 

From this perspective, all an election settles is who sits in a particular chair. This, arguably, is the perspective of plutocracy, which concedes nothing to democracy. Democracy might assume that an election settles the course of the country, or some subordinate unit, for the elected term, that it should compel some acquiescence from the opposition, but the logic of the plutocratic permanent campaign argues otherwise. As long as you have money, it would seem, you have an unlimited right to try to reverse the outcome of an election by changing everyone's mind. Well, shouldn't we try to change people's minds if they're wrong? Yes, but if our chances of succeeding depend on money rather than principle (or numbers) than money really has taken control of the political conversation in a way that mocks democracy and the constitution that supposedly permits the coup. We don't want to stop anyone from saying the country's going in a wrong direction -- haven't I just done that myself? -- but respect for democracy may require "No, you're wrong, stop" to become "Wrong, but aye for now" until the next election. That is, criticize but don't thwart unless you can make a constitutional argument on the spot. I suppose this is a moral rather than legal argument that would be hard if not impossible to enforce through law. But if our current rule of law enables a plutocracy that can veto the popular will it may be time to make a new law, not to silence anybody but to make sure all our opinions really count equally not just on Election Day but all the time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

PACs would not be so problematic if they were held to the same "truth in advertising" laws as the buyers of non-political commercial time are. If they were used only to present facts, rather than distort truth, then Mr. Wills might be correct.