Speech and Politics: How to Address the Effects of Money as a Political Voice

This morning, I received an interesting comment on a recent post:

It now seems that the best our electoral system can produce are candidates who can convince corporate donors that they will provide the best return on investment. That leaves voters holding their noses and choosing the one they believe will do the least damage, as neither candidate represents their interests. That has long been a serious problem, which the Citizens United decision has greatly exacerbated. Those who feel their vote doesn’t count have reason to feel that way. Once elected, politicians have to start raising money for the next election. There’s no time to listen to constituents who aren’t writing large checks. Fixing this serious problem would require politicians willing to sacrifice their careers by spurning their donors in favor of their country. The system strongly selects against any candidate who might have ideas like that. That’s why I always put a clothespin tightly on my nose before I vote. I wish I didn’t need the clothespin.

This got me thinking, so I set it aside to think about over lunch. Well, I’m eating lunch (a chicken salad wrap) as I write this, so I guess it is time to think… I’d like to break this though experiment into three parts: (1) why didn’t this happen in the past, (2) why is it happening now, and (3) what can we do about it.

In The Past

Why didn’t we have this problem in the 1800s and early 1900s? The answer is that we did: politicians were in the pockets of corporate interests. That’s nothing new, and it goes back for ages — starting when someone realized that someone else’s decision could benefit them. What may have made it less of a perceived problem is that the nature of elections was different. Although candidates took money for votes, they didn’t need to raise excessive money to fund campaigns. That changed as more and more offices transitioned from ones appointed by state legislators to ones directly elected by the people. Add to that increased media outlets for advertising and an increased ability to move around the country quickly, and you see an explosion in the amount of funds spent on campaign advertising.

Why Now?

Our increased media outlets lead to the need to saturate the airwaves. That costs money. The American people have tried to level the playing field by introducing campaign reform… but the courts have viewed this as a free speech issue. Advertising is a form of speech — it isn’t that far of a stretch to move from printed handbills to TV ads. One can understand why there are no restrictions on who can make such speech, and why political speech must be unrestricted. Now that’s in the abstract. One needed only to watch the TV last night to see how that was being abused by PACs. We also see abuse of free speech on the Internet, where any kook with an internet connection can publicize their crazy conspiracy theory through websites and comments at news sites.

What To Do About It?

This is the hard part. Freedom of Speech is cherished in the US. In the past, we had some limitations on speech simply through the cost barrier of getting something printed and distributed, or having to get letters through an opinion editor. Those limitations no longer exist. Further, there are no limitations on groups pooling money to create a larger voice — be it a union, a non-profit advocacy group, a political action committee, or a corporation advancing their interests. To what extent is it reasonable to limit speech? How can we only limitthe udder guy?

I think the answer comes from two directions.

The first is transparency. When speech is made, it must be clear who is making that speech. That means, ultimately, that the individuals or lowest level organizations funding the speech and directing the message must be easily discoverable. That means, for commentary on news articles, one cannot hide behind aliases. Although there is some risk in doing this (especially if the speech is borderline treasonous or seditious), I think making clear the contents and origin of the speech permits informed reception of the speech, just as food labeling laws make us more informed consumers of food.

The second is reasonable limitations. Although we might not be able to limit the use of money as speech, we should be able to limit the use of money as a way to drown out speech. In other words, there should be saturation limits, so that all viewpoints can have the opportunity to be heard. This may require judgement from broadcast media personnel of the “side” of a particular advertising. The intent here is two fold. First, money should not provide the ability to limit speech by reducing the available locales for speech (i.e., you can’t buy up all the airtime so your opponent either has none or is forced to low-exposure channels). Secondly, money should not provide the ability for colluding viewpoints to saturate media (i.e., so multiple PACs from the same end of the political spectrum can’t saturate the airwaves with the same message that is ostensibly uncoordinated). In other words, people shouldn’t be able to abuse the rules.


I don’t think we can get rid of money as a political influence, much as we like. I don’t think we can get rid of money as political speech. What I believe we can do is limit where that money is used to allow all voices to be heard and to prevent oversaturation. We should also be able to make it clear who is making the speech.

Your thoughts on how to address this problem are welcome… after you vote, of course.