Talk Newspaper by Jeff Golden: I'll go way out on a limb here and suggest that more special interest money may not be exactly what we need right now to improve politics.
"Many American voters already feel their government does not hear them. Now they can look forward to being drowned out by even louder voices."
— from Sunday's Mail Tribune editorial
Exactly. That's what Americans can take from the Supreme Court's sweeping Jan. 21 decision that corporations and unions have human-like First Amendment rights, which lifts limits on their advertising for or against candidates. We can expect a new tsunami of money from America's wealthiest special interests. I'll go way out on a limb here and suggest that more special interest money may not be exactly what we need right now to improve politics.
But that goal is not part of the Supreme Court's job. They're supposed to apply the Constitution (and case law that has been judged constitutional) to disputes that come before them. Anything beyond that gets branded as "judicial activism," which, say Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove, has been a favorite liberal weapon for bringing down America. George Bush couldn't fill a judicial slot without telling us how his nominee knows and follows the Constitution, and wouldn't dream of legislating from the Bench. Which has many people (including the MT writers who titled their editorial "Judicial Activism, Anyone?") searching the Constitution for anything that helped this conservative majority find that corporations have the same free-speech rights as people. They're finding nothing. Which is exactly what was found in the Constitution when the five-judge Rehnquist majority halted the 2000 Florida recount and handed the presidency to George Bush. So as a sidebar to this story let's be clear that "judicial activism" describes a decision with dubious constitutional basis that someone doesn't happen to like, not a sneaky liberal plot.
When it comes to this particular decision, I begin by wondering whether thoughtful people could all agree on a simple principle: If we're aiming for government of, by and for the people, then people and only people should be able to fund political candidates. Not corporations. Not PACs. Not unions. Not quilting circles or Boy Scout troops or bird watching clubs. People. If a corporation wants to send its employees and shareholders, or a union all its members, an advocacy message — "It's urgent to the future of our organization to make sure that XYZ is elected, so we hope you'll send the campaign a check, and here's the address" — and if there's no threat, bribe or coercion involved, fine. That's a healthy part of the mix. But the actual decision to write the check, to pour the mother's milk of politics, has to be left to you, me, and every other citizen as a citizen, to make winning candidates accountable solely to us. And the standard corporate/PAC line — "Oh, we're not trying to buy influence, we just want to make sure our voice is heard" — that doesn't really deserve a serious response, does it?
While I'm curious to know how many (outside five justices) would reject that basic principle, we're dealing not with the world we want but the world as it is. That world has taught us that effectively limiting campaign contributions is impossible, or close enough that more effort might be foolish. Some obstacles, like so-called independent expenditures, pose difficult questions: If I block you from running a television ad attacking or praising a candidate right before an election, I am indeed stepping on your free expression. Other obstacles are just clever end-runs: Limit campaign contributions to $2,300 per person, and all of a sudden you have key donors with a thousand children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, brothers-in-law, Lodge brothers and co-workers, all of whom decide to contribute $2,300 at once. We can't design a good limitation that won't inspire a better loophole.
What we can do is what most every other advanced country has done: establish public campaign financing. If you're shaking your head already, you may have bought some of the myths pushed by politicians addicted to corporate or union money ("Americans shouldn't be forced to support candidates they don't like with their hard-earned tax dollars!"). Before you buy into that, I'm asking — begging, if you want — for 15 minutes of your time, spent at http://youstreet.org. See if the FAQ page at that site offers a flicker of hope that politics could actually serve the public good.
I talk to few people who aren't sick to death of government-to-the-highest-bidder. We are left with three choices: keep whining as funding limitation laws get tossed out or evaded, give citizenship up for golf, fishing or "American Idol," or take a thoroughly open-minded look at public financing, which gives people all over the planet more confidence in their system than we have in ours.
In the world as it is, this seems to be a fact: Elections (and to some extent, the winners they produce) belong to whoever funds them. Shouldn't that be us?
Fifteen minutes: youstreet.org.
Daily Tidings columnist Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.