Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks is on a mission. Like Cato the Elder who inserted Carthago delenda est, or variations on the same, in all of his speeches, whether the subject was foreign policy or a new aqueduct, Uygur refers to Wolf PAC, an organization that he was a part in founding in 2011, whenever any mention of the money that makes our politics happen is made in TYT’s analysis of the news.
The problem, according to Wolf PAC is that money. And the solution is an amendment to the Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, among other unspecified purposes. I am always reluctant to sign blank checks, and when someone asks me to alter the nation’s founding document, I need to see the details. This is not to say that I am opposed to the idea at the heart of what Wolf PAC says it is seeking to do. But I find their solution, as much as it is fleshed out, to be simplistic.
The Citizens United decision determined that the speech rights of corporations and unions mean that such organizations are allowed to spend as much money as they have while advocating for their causes during elections. Why? Because money is speech, of course.
Though I state that sarcastically, in practical terms, speech and the press do require some funds to be heard. That was even more the case before the Internet became the primary realm of societal interaction. These days, the potential to reach the world is available for the price of access, though the number of voices shouting at each other is large enough that the costs to gain attention for yourself remain high. Saying that we have the right to express ourselves, but only at such volume our personal vocal apparatuses can achieve, leaves the right as something without much application in the real world.
A more apt point to consider is donations to candidates or advocacy groups. This has the appearance of paying an employee to do a job. One solution that has been floated for a long time now is public financing of elections. That would open up the field to more people, which is a good in itself, but it does not address the link of money and speech. Perhaps a better answer would be to require all donations to be anonymous — not anonymous in the sense that the public is prevented from knowing who is providing the funds, but instead a system by which the money given has no information attached to it about who the donor was. This would preserve the ability of the people to support causes as causes, rather than as a pay-to-play deal.
But there is a bigger problem that I rarely see addressed in discussions of this subject. This is easily illustrated by asking how much you are paid for your vote. As I said above, money amplifies voices, but ultimately it is the duty of each voter — or consumer, generally — to make an independent decision. A healthy attitude toward all advertising is to assume that it is a lie until proved otherwise. This is because marketing is not an argument in a rational debate, but is instead an attempt to sway our behavior through means outside of facts and logic alone. When I am being asked to change my values or to revise my desires, the burden is on the person making the request to persuade or to entice me.
When asked by a a woman waiting outside of Independence Hall upon learning that the delegates had drafted a new constitution whether we would have a republic or a monarchy, Benjamin Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” That keeping cannot be done solely with feel-good measures, nor with imposing more and more regulations that only affect the consequences of the system that we have allowed to develop.
What irks me the most about Wolf PAC’s approach is that it ignores what voters are bringing to the process. As I write this article, #Sharknado6 is a trend on Twitter, and we have a president who sold millions of Americans on a reality TV version of our country. Just under sixty percent of those who are eligible cast a ballot in 2016, and a chronic problem for our democracy is ill-informed voters. Getting money out of politics sounds like an aspirin when the patient is having a heart attack — it is perhaps necessary at the moment, but it will not save us in the long run.
As I said above, there are steps that we can take to reduce the corrosive effect of money. But unless we overcome the inertia in the minds of the people, we will always fall back into the swamp in which Trump and his ilk thrive.
How do we do this? For one thing, we have a failed educational system, torn down by a lack of funding, by teachers who are treated abominably, and by unrealistic expectations with respect to the resources available. All of those must be corrected. An educated population is necessary to the fulfillment of the promise of democracy, and it comes as no surprise to me that the Republican Party has been fighting against education for a long time.
But that is a program that will take years. Right now, we have the opportunity to persuade people by demonstrating that progressive values and solutions are supported by evidence and grounded in a commitment to increasing the well being of all. This is a message that we must proudly declare. And we cannot get bogged down in technical squabbles or phantasmagoric dreams. We want healthcare and education for all. Once we get those, once voters see the benefits that those provide, many other problems will be easier to address.