Case 1: Washington Republican State Senator Ann Anderson, running for state commissioner of public lands, sets a new record for spending over $400,000 in pursuit of that office, more than twice as much as her Democratic rival. Many cry foul because the lands commissioner manages state timberland and regulates logging on private lands, yet Anderson's biggest campaign contributors were the very timber companies she will have to regulate -- Weyerhauser, Plum Creek, Trillium. Conflict of interest?
Case 2: The Bush campaign rakes in millions from the medical community, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical manufacturers, more than three times the amount given to Democratic rival Bill Clinton. Why? Because these special interest groups oppose Dem ocrat Clinton's proposals to expand publicly-funded health care. "No one could belong to the American Medical Association and not know that their income is at stake in the debate on national health policy," said Michael Podhorzer, research director of Ci tizen Action. Influence peddling?
Case 3: Republican candidate Michael Huffington and incumbent Demcratic U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein smash all spending records when they blow a combined $40 million for that seat. Democracy for sale?
Big Money. It can, and does, buy elections, at all levels of government. We badly need campaign finance reform. But we aren't very keen about government tampering with our First Amendment rights. And it is these very same First Amendment rights that t he Supreme Court has cited whenever it has struck down as unconstitutional any attempt to limit campaign spending. In Buckley vs. Valeo (1975) the High Court ruled that money is speech; since speech cannot be abridged by government, neither can campaign spending. The Justices rationale extends the free market creed to the realm of ideas and politicking: good luck in the elections, and may the wealthiest candidate win!
Has it ever occurred to First Amendment-philes -- those who take the fundamentalist position that the First Amendment is the end-all and be-all on speech issues and must never be tampered with by government -- that such government restraint in this arena leaves it open to those who have the most wealth and power to buy the most speech and press, i.e. corporations like defense contractor General Electric who owns NBC? Or well-connected, well-financed incumbents? How is the free speech of a single mother, or a wage-earning father, or most single individuals, equal in either quantity or quality to the free speech of a wealthy corporation, or of a media mogul family like the Ochs-Sulzberger family that has owned the New York Times since 1896? Is it any coi ncidence that a billionaire candidate like Ross Perot has legitimacy, but former Mayor of Irvine, CA Larry Agran, who also had a plan to reduce the deficit, is virtually ignored by the national media? In a free speech fundamentalist society, dominated by the "free market" of ideas, billionaires and corporations can buy far more free speech and press than ordinary folk. It's just that simple. And simply unfair.
We can't have it both ways. We can't have true campaign finance reform, with firm, compulsory spending caps and public financing, without changing how we view the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Our current view of the First Amendment springs from a 19th century tradition of classical liberalism. Central to classical liberalism is a view that "government governs best that governs least," of laissez-faire in the economic sphere and maximum indivi dual liberty in the social and political, bound tightly together by a enmity toward government interference.
Sound familiar? We can see the descendants of classical liberalism today in free marketeers and private property rightists like George Bush and economist Ronald Coase, and in civil libertarians, pro-pornography advocates and sexual liberals like Madonna, Camille Paglia, Bob Guccione and the American Civil Liberties Union. They are two sides of the same coin of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism, the precursor to much of modern conservative thought, teaches us to be wary of the state and equates liberty with limited government. So too with sexual liberals and civil libertarians. Their free speech tradition builds on this view when they reduce free speech to liberty and define liberty as the absence of government interference. Under this guise , free speech becomes just one more strand in the general tapestry pleading for limited government and individual liberty.
There is an elemental debate being waged today in the United States that pits labor, environmentalists, and radical feminists versus a civil libertarian/laissez faire view of individual political and economic rights. On the one side we have a strong trad ition of government intervention, growing out of the successes of the New Deal and Great Society social programs, that calls for constraints on the individual property rights of timber companies and wetland owners, of pornographers and other purveyors of the commercialization of women's bodies, and of multi-national corporations and free traders who want to pick up and move their factories-- their individual private property-- to maquiladoras in Mexico. On the other side we have the civil libertarian/l aissez faire tradition, adamantly opposed to government intervention. Whether the group is the American Civil Liberties Union or Dan Quayle's Council on Economic Competition pushing the North American Free Trade Agreement, the goal is deregulation and li mited government.
It is deeply ironic that civil libertarians and sexual liberals have denounced radical feminists as lying in the same bed as fundamentalist Christians and the Moral Majority because of a similar focus against pornography (albeit for completely different r easons -- one being a morale argument and the other being a civil rights/anti-violence against women argument). Yet the civil libertarian philosophy has more in common with the laissez faire, free market economics of the Bush and Reagan Administrations t han any civil libertarian or sexual liberal would care to admit. In curious ways, left meets right.
The First Amendment fundamentalist position-- like most fundamentalist positions whether they are religious, free market, or of the left or right-- tends to be naive to the point of a dangerous simple-mindedness. Corporate speech and individual speech, in most cases, are not equal and should not be treated as such. Wealthy speech-- buying half hour infommercials like presidential candidate Ross Perot-- and cheap speech-- handing out leaflets to pedestrians like grassroots presidential candidates Ron Daniels, Andre Morrou or James Warren-- are orders of magnitude different. Only by reconceptualizing the First Amendment will we be able to imagine a jurisprudence that will allow the government to intervene so as to enact meaningful campaign expenditu re limits.
We have trusted an activist government to intervene to stop discrimination based on race and sex, and we trust the government to educate our children and to regulate various industries and the banks. In fact, there has been a public outcry because the Re agan/Bush Administrations have tried to privatize our schools and have deregulated the banks and S&Ls with disastrous consequences. So why shouldn't we trust government to intervene more in matters of speech and the First Amendment?
Yet civil libertarians and sexual liberals cringe at the thought, and vilify anyone who might suggest such a course (witness Camille Paglia's tirade against Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin in October's Playboy). Ironically, every time Madonna or t he American Civil Liberties Union crow about the benefits of the free speech fundamentalist tradition, they are playing the role of accomplices to the other half of that antiquated 19th century tradition-- namely George Bush and his free marketeers.
Don't they make an odd pair, lying in the same bed-- George Bush and Madonna, Camille Paglia and Dan Quayle? Spread the gossip!
This is the first of a two part series. In part two, an examination of significant court cases of the past twenty years will show that the free speech fundamentalist tradition has actually resulted in more free speech for the wealthy and less free speech for the grassroots. Civil liberties advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union and Madonna have been complicit in this process, allowing the First Amendment to become a bastion for wealth speech, and by extension the private property rights of a wealthy few, rather than a vehicle that promotes the free speech of the masses.
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