Last week, the day after the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, The Washington Post and The New York Times between them carried eight print articles about the ruling. McCutcheon is the latest in a string of decisions in which the court has held that various limits on campaign contributions violate the First Amendment free speech rights of rich people and corporations. The articles ranged from fairly balanced news reports through only slightly slanted sidebars to open frothing and foaming on the Times editorial page.
Nevertheless, this was all too much for a group of Republican House members who introduced the so-called “Freedom From the Press Act,” which would limit how much a corporation or individual could spend putting out a newspaper or any other medium in which political opinions are expressed. “For too long,” said their news release, “wealthy media companies have been able to dominate the political debate, drowning the voices of ordinary citizens who may not agree with these companies’ elitist views on subjects such as campaign contributions by wealthy corporations. Media corporations dominate the political debate, not just because of money but because they control the established channels of communication. This bill will be one step toward a level playing field.”
There is, in fact, no such bill limiting anyone’s right to publish a newspaper or broadcast a talk show. But if there were, is it possible that the media might find it just a tad unconstitutional? Might they not invoke every cliche of First Amendment jurisprudence, such as “the solution to speech is more speech” (i.e., if you disagree with me, write your own op-ed piece but don’t try to stop mine) or all that stuff about disagreeing with what you say but defending to the death your right to say it? And wouldn’t they be right?
How can anyone say — as people do say, as if this settles the issue — that “money isn’t speech” and then, in the same breath, ask for money to spread the word about the danger to democracy posed by the Koch brothers, who are pouring millions of dollars into political campaigns supporting their conservative-libertarian point of view? Money spent trying to spread a political message is speech, whether you like the message or not. More money is louder speech that more people can hear.
Does this mean we are powerless to prevent money from dominating politics? Or does the law, in its majestic equality, allow rich and poor alike to spend unlimited funds in support of political candidates they favor?
Not necessarily. Seen as a bribe, a campaign contribution isn’t very efficient. A politician can’t pocket it. Some do, of course, but campaign reform isn’t intended or required to snare an outright crook. The rules are made for the rule-abiding, and a rule-abiding politician can use money from campaign contributions only in efforts to persuade the voters. In other words, not only is campaign spending speech — it is only speech. That’s all the money is good for. And the voters have it within their power to ignore this speech and make all that contribution money worthless.
The power of money in politics is only as large as we allow it to be. What we need are a few more campaigns where the amount an opponent is spending becomes an issue itself. We need a political culture where a politician will have to make a calculation before accepting a contribution from Rich Plutocrats for America: Will the number of votes I gain by having more money to spend on obnoxious TV commercials be bigger or smaller than the number I will lose because people are offended by Rich Plutocrats for America (and those obnoxious TV commercials)?
The solution when you don’t like someone’s speech is not to silence that person, or that corporation. It’s more and louder speech of your own. Just like they teach in law school.
Michael Kinsley is a columnist for Vanity Fair. He wrote this for The Washington Post.