clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Supreme Court has limited political speech to the wealthy few


On Wednesday, the Supreme Court claimed to protect our First Amendment rights to free speech by striking down the overall limit on campaign contributions we can make during a given election season. But I don’t feel a whole lot freer.

Not that the previous limit did most of us any good. It was $123,200 or about 2.4 times the average income of the bottom 99 percent of us. To have reached those limits, we’d have had to live on nothing for two and a half years. That explains why only .05 percent of Americans gave that amount, not to mention the 132 individuals (a mere .000042 percent of us) that contributed 62 percent of the Super PAC money, but that concerns another Court decision that blew the lid off of limits.

It’s a farce, of course. We all know that money delivers, and this is just another way of buying influence. As Mark Hanna, the 19th century Republican “kingmaker” declared, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” Of course, it spans both parties. In 1981, Democratic Sen. John Breaux famously told a newspaper, “My vote can’t be bought, but it can be rented.”

Members of Congress are instructed to spend four hours a day “dialing for dollars” (i.e. fundraising); an amount one congressman considered too conservative and The Atlantic considered “humiliating.” Moreover, they are beholden to the tiniest slice of the 1 percent, and therefore “develop a sixth sense, a constant awareness about how what they do might affect their ability to raise money.” In contrast, in Dade County, Florida, when a blind trust was set up to finance judicial elections, donations dried up. They no longer bought anything.

We saw the humiliation last weekend, as four potential presidential candidates threw themselves at casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. He spent $93 million on the 2012 elections and had announced that he was looking for a new candidate to support. The pandering included Gov. John Kasich who, though speaking to an audience (the Republican Jewish Coalition), addressed Adelson personally, concluding with “In Ohio, we’re no longer fly-over [country], Sheldon. We want you to invest. We want you to get to know us better.

So our candidates are filtered through a money primary, limiting the crop that we small-fry get to choose from. But what of the Court’s 5-4 conclusion that they are facilitating speech?

Well, it depends in the first instance on money being speech, which of course it isn’t. If money is speech then almost anything can be.

But let’s play along that it is. What might constitute its protection? Consider John Stuart Mill’s classic defense of speech. He writes that “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Now that might seem to support the Court – the “no silencing” part being akin to no spending limits. But look closer and the intention behind it is revealed. Mill was concerned about the strong (the majority) silencing the weak (the one). It’s an argument that says might doesn’t make right. In fact, the entire Bill of Rights was designed to protect the one against the powerful.

Applied to elections, money isn’t just “speech;” it buys speech. Adelson can contribute to candidates in my district and every district across the nation. Then, my representatives are beholden to him. His voice is magnified 93 million times that of mine. In fact, he drowns me out. Who, then, will protect the speech of “the one”? Not the Court.

But Mill contemplates limits on speech. One’s speech may be limited “to prevent harm to others,” especially to their rights. And that’s just what drowning out does. Moreover, in the case of Adelman, an adamant opponent of unions, the 93 million-fold magnification of his voice works against the working poor and does them harm. They’re helpless against that kind of money, and he knows it or he wouldn’t spend it.

Of course, the court claims it wants to expand the speech of everyone. After all, in theory we can all give to the max. Since 99 percent of us couldn’t afford to indulge in political spending at the prior limits, however, it’s simply duplicitous. A real expansion of speech would be Lawrence Lessig’s idea of giving every American “democracy vouchers” – $50 in the form of tax rebates to spend on any candidate – and limiting politicians to it, or to contributions capped at $100. Beyond that, the Adelsons could be directed to Twitter like the rest of us.

Mary Barker teaches political science at Syracuse University’s study abroad program in Madrid, Spain, and at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas. She is currently on leave to conduct research and is teaching at Salt Lake Community College.