The Foolishness of Campaign Finance Reformers

Or, consider reformers' insistence that "money isn't speech." Put aside the fact that liberals never complain that money isn't abortion rights when they lobby for medicaid funds or that money isn't the right to an attorney when they lobby for indigent defense funding. Instead, simply remember reformers' claim that money isn't speech when they explain that restrictions on corporate expenditures are essential to democracy because monopolizing wealth enables corporations to monopolize speech. In other words, they implicitly argue, we need campaign finance restrictions because money is speech. But explicitly conceding that money is speech would require them to acknowledge an intent to limit First Amendment rights, to engage in arguments about the value of corporate political advocacy, and present compelling reasons for criminalizing it. That's a debate advocates of reform want very much to avoid, which is why they also attack the notion of corporate personhood.  

Like the slogan "money isn't speech," "corporations aren't people" endowed with individual rights, has a certain visceral appeal--especially when you don't acknowledge that corporate personhood is a metaphor. And, like "money isn't speech," the insistence that "corporations aren't people" is employed selectively: The 4th and 5th amendments explicitly apply to "people" and "persons," but I have yet to hear any liberal advocate of campaign finance reform argue that the government may subject corporations to unreasonable searches and seizures or prosecutions devoid of due process.

Still these slogans are effective in no small part because they frame the movement to restrict corporate political speech as a populist crusade. (The progressive website promoting a constitutional amendment is called freespeechforpeople.org.) Yet this supposedly populist movement has a paternalistic heart: The actual effect of political advertising (a primary target of reformers) is difficult to measure. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't; just ask Meg Whitman. But reformers--who don't seem to believe they base their own votes on political ads--assume that many voters are stupid or ignorant and easily manipulated by advertising. Whether or not this assumption is true, it belies the image of campaign finance reform as a populist crusade; it's a crusade that mistrusts the populace.

And, however stupid voters may be, they're surely no stupider than progressive reformers who want to repeal or amend the First Amendment. Reformers are apparently stupid enough to believe that Congress and state legislatures, increasingly dominated by right wing Republicans (who will exert considerable control over redistricting and appear poised to take over the Senate in 2012) would enact an amendment that would advance progressive policies. Prominent progressives, including editors at The Nation, are even willing to support the constitutional convention so devoutly desired by the far right. "The Nation is committed to (this) struggle as one that is in the noblest traditions of this magazine," an editorial proclaims. "We will do everything in our power to further it, with no quarter for cynicism or compromise," and, they might have added, "with no reality testing." It's not cynicism that desires a progressive political movement to display a minimum of political intelligence.  

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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