The New York Times headline reads “Obama Turns up Heat.” As a President under fire himself, from angry tea-partiers and ex-Cosmo centerfolds to the voters of Massachusetts, he better have something good to be cooking. How ’bout the Supreme Court?
There is at least one Republican in the Senate who will, finally, like the smell coming from Obama’s kitchen – former campaign rival turned critic-in-chief John McCain. Why? Because Obama is all het up on account of a 5-4 decision by the Court to overturn vital parts of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, otherwise known as McCain-Feingold. The ruling means that limits introduced in the Bill on corporate spending in US elections will no longer hold.
“Mid-terms should be interesting, and good luck passing healthcare.”
The Majority decision makers called it a vindication of free speech. Obama called it a victory for oil producers, health insurers, and wall street banks. It isn’t too hard to see why he’s peeved—the decision comes just as Obama loses his filibuster-proof Senate majority, and given his anti-health-insurer, anti-wall street agenda, it’s a safe bet that most of the extra cash sloshing around won’t be going his way. Put simply, mid-terms should be interesting, and good luck passing healthcare.
However, we shouldn’t be too cynical. There are good, nonpartisan reasons to disapprove of this decision. The question is what we really think free speech in the political arena should be. Everyone knows that free speech is not absolute – you can’t yell fire in a theatre, you can’t lie in court, so far, so obvious. But there is an attitude that expression in the political realm should be unfettered. In a certain sense, that’s a good attitude. Yet between this attitude and the idea that campaign finance should be unrestricted lies a litany of miss-steps and conflated ideas.
The most wrong-footed amongst these is the equation of spending with expression. There is, perhaps, something to be said for the idea that by sponsoring a candidate, or paying for an advert, one is expressing a political view. But spending is still not expression. Not quite. It’s an issue of range versus scale. When we protect political speech, we say that there should be no limit to the range of ideas that can be communicated in the political realm. When we protect political spending, we say there should be no limit to the scale those ideas are expressed at.
“Unlimited campaign finance is, in effect, contrary to free speech.”
The two aren’t actually compatible. If there is limited space for ideas to be expressed – say, advertising space, then allowing those that can afford it unlimited spending will inevitably limit the range of ideas being expressed. Unlimited campaign finance is, in effect, contrary to free speech. This is what Obama is talking about when he says that the decision will “drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
If you were having a discussion at a dinner party, and a drunken, ruddy-faced, bemoustached middle aged man started to, at arms length, scream directly at your face in a torrent of spittle and vitriol, you wouldn’t be accused of violating free speech if you, wiping your spectacles, asked him to keep it down a bit. You would merely be ensuring that everyone could be heard, and a meaningful conversation had. What the Supreme Court has defended is the age old right of American Corporations to spit in American Faces. It’s in the constitution, look it up.