18 January 2012
As amusing as the Colbert SuperPac (sorry, the definitely not coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC) is, and as ridiculous as some of the lax system of enforcement appears to be, I don't think this really points out a problem.
Or rather, what it points out is that we should just get rid of the pretext and let the candidates spend and coordinate money as it comes in (while external forces can always spend their own money). What the difference needs to be is transparency. We know, more or less, who is giving to these PACs. Same deal with campaigns.
As far as the actual issues, I was not as alarmed as it appears most people were with the Citizens United decision that kicked all this fuss off. There are a number of reasons
1) It increased access to speech, not limited it to corporate money. Unions and non-profit corporations can now run advertisements all they want during elections. Corporations could always run advertising and editorials by purchasing media companies. Personally, freedom of speech generally should always trump freedom of press specifically. Limiting speech to powerful media corporations to determine the range of opinions and topics that are free for public consumption was never a good idea.
2) Money is speech. It is required to have funds to purchase airtime, distribute information, and so on. Occupy Wall Street type protest movements may be fun, but they also just ran out of money and hence, their speech is somewhat limited. Should people agree with their basic message, they could continue donating money to fund it. I would have no problem with that even if they used the money to pay for ads or tv slots agitating against the government or against particular members of it (or against particular corporations). That is their right to exercise said speech. I disagree with their proposed solutions in almost all cases, but they're at least on to something with topics like income inequality and corporate-government capture issues.
3) Corporations are legally speaking people, endowed with a particular set of protected rights by governments that observe their creation and destruction. But that wasn't the basis of SCOTUS's ruling in the first place. The basis was that the government isn't supposed to be in the business of restricting speech. Period. As a counter experiment, suppose we were to decide that the 4th amendment did not apply to corporations (as liberals wish the first amendment not to). This would mean that the private property of a corporate building, be it a factory or office building or warehouse, could be searched and seized without warrant or due process. And this could include, since many corporations have set aside storage and so forth for their employees' private property, that property as well. We are already strangely assenting to letting police search school property and confiscate goods belonging to students (usually illicit goods, but sometimes regular medication, etc). Is it next fine to do the same to employees at a private business? Back to the actual topic. Where is it okay then to restrict the speech of a collection of people? It is perhaps true that not all workers and employees will favor the same set of politics as the corporation and its masters direct. But at the moment, there is also no restriction for them to organise into unions and to use the union to publicize those views, or to give privately to opposing political organisations (Greenpeace or the ACLU for example).
4) Citizens United and Super PACs generally are a topic relating to election funding. Certainly most of the general public pays more attention to politics when there is an election ongoing. But. For example, I have encountered numerous people who knew nothing of the SOPA protests or even the bill itself until google went black on its site today, wikipedia went dark, and lots of people started posting links and strange photos on facebook. And this is with a Presidential election coming up later this year. Most people do not in fact pay much attention to politics as it actually happens. They have little desire to do so and spend little effort to do it. The actual machinery of governance that is troubled is not elections. It is legislating. Huge corporate lobbies are behind all manner of legislation. From SOPA to the health care bill to those stupid anti-Shariah law bills all over the country. I am not horribly troubled by this, in so far as they are involved in the process and air their objections or support for bills that come up. I am troubled when the actual bills are designed and written by said lobbies and rubber stamped by legislatures who don't spend much time actually considering the power they will wield with said bills. Most of Congress has little more of an understanding on how SOPA would work than they did with the PATRIOT act. This should be disturbing, far more so than the influence of corporations on what advertisements we see during an election campaign.
So while the Colbert bump against this sort of speech, and the attending ridiculous hoops we go through to make something at least mostly legal, is certainly amusing. And to many people hopefully enlightening in the manner and influence of money on politics, I'm not sure there's a conclusive end point to it either. It doesn't deal with the methods of regulation and sausage making involved in actually governing a country, which is where influence actually matters. Elections are like changing the drapes (and usually not even that. It's more like thinking about changing the drapes). Legislation is like ripping up the foundation and remodeling, by analogy. The useless focus on elections is overdone I should think as a result.