They Can’t Buy Democracy If It’s Free

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in candidate elections presents a sea change in American politics and is a direct threat to our democracy. According to the court, money is speech, corporations are people. We can now imagine a world where Big Business can spend billions of dollars in advertising against candidates and legislation that threaten their bottom line. Legislators who take all this new corporate cash literally become wholly owned subsidiaries. Those legislators who want to do the right thing in favor of the public may be too afraid now to do so. However, the backlash has already started. Immediately after the 5-4 ruling, called Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the Obama administration and Democratic leaders in Congress announced plans for legislation to mitigate the damage.

Opponents of the court’s decision are pushing for a constitutional amendment to ban corporate personhood – a tall hurdle to leap. But in the meantime, there are legislative remedies being proposed, such as allowing shareholders a say in any political spending, and renewing the push for voluntary public financing of campaigns. Laudable goals, but I have some concerns about the effectiveness of these. At least one congressperson says shareholders already have the right to veto political spending. As for public financing, taxpayers could never hope to match the billions a corporate-financed candidate could generate.

The major problem is the amount of money campaigns pay to media outlets to get their messages out. Advertising is one of the biggest – if not the biggest – expense in a campaign’s budget. Spend gobs of money on deceptive commercials against your opponent, and you can drown them out if they don’t have enough money to fight back. And everyone knows that many voters – overworked and uninformed – tend to make decisions based on political ads. But what if Congress and the President require that broadcast television and radio outlets offer spots for political ads for free? This would immediately level the playing field somewhat. After all, television and radio should be operating in the public interest because the airwaves belong to the public.

The details would have to be worked out, but I envision that candidates wanting the free airtime would have to show some base of support (via signatures or whatever), and each candidate – people backed and corporate backed – would get an equal amount of time. Candidates would no longer have to worry about opponents drowning them out with a bombardment of issue ads. Average working people can get the same shot at running for office as rich people. Voters can finally decide between candidates based on their merits. Call it The Fair Elections Doctrine.

I can already hear howling from the four or five companies that own our media outlets. Free airtime for political candidates means a lot less money for them. But I really don’t care. Preserving democracy is far more important than the mainstream media’s profits. Besides, free airtime may have the beneficial effect of creating shorter campaign seasons, like they have in Europe. Media companies certainly won’t like to have to give away so much airtime over the 1-2 years it currently takes to run most federal campaigns, when they can fill that time with paid commercials. Congress can set, say, a three month bloc of time before the election for the free ads. If Big Business thinks even that is unfairly regulating their speech, then let them access more airtime. But it must be free, and equal airtime must be offered to all opponents in response. Giving everyone free, equal airtime might also discourage much longer ads, specifically the anti-Hillary Clinton documentary at the center of the Supreme Court case. I haven’t yet read the entire 183-page court ruling, but  I wonder if corporations can also now spend unlimited amounts of money on other campaign expenses, like volunteers and staff, signs, T-shirts, buttons, flyers, mailers, bumper stickers, posters, robocalls and candidate events. Anyway, the free media time would go a long way toward evening the playing field, and the rest of a candidate’s expenses could then be made up for with public financing.

Finally, with the Fair Elections Doctrine, nobody’s free speech rights would be trampled because everyone will be given the same chance at the same time to present their message to the voters at the same price – zero. After all, what good is free speech if it isn’t free?