I recently read a Puffington Host column by Steven van Zandt, whoever that is, entitled There is Only One Issue in America. The author defines that problem as political campaigns tainted by private money, and that the solution is to overturn Buckley v Valeo, the Supreme Court case that held, in part and with some restrictions, that private campaign donations were protected First Amendment Free Speech. This finding was later extended in the case of Citizens United which held essentially that corporations enjoy First Amendment protection just as private individuals do. And there is the rub and what has the Progressives’ panties all in a bunch.
For his part, Mr. van Zandt’s solution is to eliminate private donations to political campaigns and finance all campaigns with public funds thereby eliminating the lack of fairness in the political process. The problem as Mr. van Zandt defines it is that if money equals speech, then lack of money equals lack of speech and the non-moneyed interests are therefore shut out of the process, (by means other than their own vote).
There is very little disagreement that flow of money provides the life blood of political campaigns. Private donations to political causes allow expenditures that yield coverage and exposure of both individual candidates and political points of view. In recent years, financing a presidential election has become a massive fund raising affair and this year, our President has suggested that he will raise $1B to finance his re-election campaign, a sobering war chest to be sure.
Despite the massive sums spent on campaigns, many donations come from individuals interested in politics and willing to impart $5, or $10 to support a preferred candidate. Mr. van Zandt’s preferred solution would be to outlaw this kind of engagement in the political process. The denial of direct participation in the political process through campaign contributions has been reasonably and correctly equated to a denial of
First Amendment rights to free speech. If you and I cannot contribute to our preferred candidate, how then is our participation protected? Many people donate time and effort but others are unable to afford that luxury and therefore donate money. These donations represent to many, the only available avenue to participate other than through the act of voting itself (which is after all the ultimate political participation). And participation is a fundamental aspect of this nation allowing us to influence who represents our interests in the political process.
The same can be said for non-individual (corporates, non-profits, labor unions, and other assembled association) participants. They also have a stake in influencing the individuals that will be writing and executing the laws of our nation. After all, these organizations are nothing more than the free associations of individuals for a common purpose, a concept that is foundational to our republic and again protected by the First Amendment.
The result of the foregoing is that campaign contributions are a bedrock right of citizens, of this country to participate in the political process of our nation, something which Mr van Zandt is apparently ready to throw overboard in his zeal to socialize our politics. His blindside is that he has mis-diagnosed the issue and prescribed a lobotomy for a headache. Money in politics becomes corrupting when it yields a quid pro quo, that is specific official actions that amount to political favoritism benefiting the donor in a targeted, direct, and exclusive fashion. This kind of activity amounts to corruption and it is corruption that pollutes our politics. There is a fine line between political favoritism and corruption and favoritism occurs all too often resulting in much corruption that goes unpunished. (The negotiation to subordinate the Department of Energy Loan to Solyndra’s investors’ interests, contrary to law, is an example of unpunished corruption, as was the subordination of bondholders interests to the labor unions during the GM rescue). But our political system with its tri-partite structure, distribution of authority, freedom of the press and speech, and other constitutional safeguards, tends to mitigate unchecked corruption.
So what is it with Progressives that they are so quick to propose political solutions that deny Americans their fundamental rights? My belief is that 1) they lack a sufficient understanding of our political institutions and 2) they have so badly misdiagnosed the problem that the solution they propose is invariably unrelated to the issue. In relation to 2, Progressive’s view of the world is overly simplified expressing all problems in terms of power dynamics, that is who has power and who doesn’t. In this case, those lacking the money to participate politically must be protected from those who run our political process enabled by the access to money. While this condition may seem unfair, is this really an insightful dissection of the core of our political problems? If this were North Korea, or Iran, I might answer in the affirmative but it is not. And our Constitution continues to guard us against the deprivations and subjective cruelties that one might associate with totalitarian regimes. Essentially, Progressives short change their own ability to view reality as it is by relying on political models that distort that reality into a simplified construct that results in both a misdiagnosis of the actual problem and a wildly off-base solution. And not so ironically, the consequences of their preferred solutions frequently display a totalitarian impulse.
Mr. van Zandt’s diagnosis and essay turn on the insight between wealth-amplified speech and un-amplified speech to completely misdiagnose the problem of official corruption
(of which we already have laws on the books against, however unsatisfactorily they may be applied). Other Progressive constructs are equally crude such as John Edwards, two America’s (ie. rich and poor, somehow omitting the entirety of the divergent middle class in his attempt to define America) and the Occupy Wall St crowd with their splitting of America into the 99% and the 1%, or Karl Marx’s division of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Isn’t it curious that they seem to all be describing the world in binary terms, which grossly oversimplifies the reality that we live in while at the same time promoting a view that divides our society into simplistic opposing factions. If you can’t adequately describe our world in terms that define the issues specifically and with precision, then you forfeit any chance of actually solving the problem. Would you trust a medical professional with a similarly jaundiced perspective?