Thursday, November 04, 2010

"Money As a Form of Speech"

One of the reasons why we get more pleasure from satire
than from a sermon, even when the satire is making exactly the same 
point as the sermon, is that we have an uncomfortable feeling that
the minister expects us to do something about it.
-- Leonard Feinberg
I had to get to the office early today to write up the local election report.  So I was surprised to see that my neighbor’s foreign exchange student, loaded with books, was already headed toward the university.  I pulled over and told him to hop in.
“We should probably introduce ourselves if we’re going to keep running into each other,” I said, sticking out my hand.  “I’m Ace.”
“My name is Aadil,” he said. “A-a-d-i-l.  I am pleased to formally make your acquaintance.”
“That’s an unusual name,” I said.  “Where are you from?”
“I am from Pakistan,” he replied.  “‘Aadil’ is a Muslim name meaning ‘just.’”
“Hope you’re not a terrorist,” I said, and then added, when he flinched, “Just joking.  What gets you out so early?  Got a big test coming up?
He shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “I stayed up late watching your election returns and had trouble sleeping afterwards, so I decided it would be more efficient to make use of the time and go study.”
“Well, what did you think of the election?” I asked.  “Watching democracy in action must have been an experience for you.  And now the people have spoken.”
He glanced at me.  “My country is a parliamentary democracy,” he said.  “But it is interesting that you phrase the results of your election in that manner.  Since your Supreme Court ruled in ‘Citizens United’ that money is a form of speech, I mean.”
“Why is that interesting?” I asked, curious.
He hesitated.  “This is your country,” he said.  “Please understand that I do not wish to offend.  I am simply trying to understand the way in which your electoral system functions.”
“Hey!  No skin off my ... nose,” I told him.  “Feel free.”
He looked baffled for an instant, and then said, “I am unable to follow the logic of the assertion that money is a form of speech, and that therefore people and corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money exercising their freedom to use this presumed form of speech.”
I glanced over at him.  “What’s your problem with the logic?” I asked.
“It’s simply an analogy, isn’t it?” he said.  “Money equals speech?  Dollars are the same as words and sentences?”
“Okay.”
“But if we pursue the analogy, it means that people who have no money have no speech, no voice,” he said.  “If one’s home is being foreclosed on, or if one has huge medical bills, or works for minimum wage, or is out of work, or any of a number of other possibilities, one is unable to ‘say’ anything, because one doesn’t have the money to ‘speak’ in the political arena.”
“Uh, I guess that makes sense,” I said.  “I hadn’t thought about that.”
“And if one is very wealthy, or a giant corporation, one can ‘speak’ loudly and almost endlessly,” he went on.  “In fact, one can speak so long and so loudly that it becomes difficult for anyone else to even be heard--or only another person or corporation that also has an enormous amount of money.”
“I’m afraid that’s true,” I said, after thinking about it for a minute.
“So your court’s ruling would seem to sweep away any possibility of equality in the electoral process,” he said.  “One citizen can ‘say’ nothing, while a billionaire can ‘speak’ on and on and on.  And your elections are very expensive.  One has almost no hope of competing successfully without having a huge treasury to buy television time, buy radio time, hire consultants and pollers and staff, print brochures and bumper stickers, rent offices and computers and phone banks.”
“That’s true too,” I admitted.
“People of ordinary means therefore have little voice, and also appear to be largely excluded as candidates for major offices in your country,” he said.  “Or they are sponsored by the rich and indebted to them.”
“Politics has become a playground for the wealthy,” I conceded.
“And both political parties are indebted to their wealthy sponsors, meaning that what they both ‘hear’ is likely to be the voice of the ruling elite, not the voice of common citizens.” 
“‘Ruling elite’ sounds like un-American phrasing,” I said, “but I get what you’re saying.
“Perhaps ‘dollars are a form of votes’ would be a more accurate analogy than ‘money is a form of speech,’” he mused.  “And it contradicts the “one person, one vote” rule, because some people get millions of votes, while others get none.”
“It doesn’t always work out that way,” I pointed out.  “Sometimes the winner has spent less than the person who lost.”
“That happens,” he concurred.  “The one who spends the most generally wins, though not always.  Actually, the level of spending required to even compete acts as a screening device.  People who can’t raise large levels of money are simply eliminated.  Usually they don’t even make it into your primaries, because they get discouraged.  Or they lose in the primaries.  That means that many ordinary people can back a candidate who doesn’t stand a chance, while a single wealthy backer or industry can propel another candidate forward in the race.  In effect, many people’s ‘speech’ may mean nothing, while one person’s speech may lead to victory.”
“That’s the way it works,” I said slowly.
“The ‘Citizens United’ ruling appears to be the capstone on your election funding process,” he said.  “Maintaining the form of a democracy while functioning as a plutocracy.”
“Now wait a minute,” I said. “You’ve gone too far.”
He looked out the window.  “Oh, no,” he said.  “This is where I get out.  And thank you for the dialogue.  I am most grateful for the ride.”
© Tony Russell, 2010

4 comments:

PW said...

Strange that you should pick the quote by Leonard Feinberg as your opening statement, when in reality both the sermon, and satire are one and the same. And are both designed to capture the attention of a gullible audience.

That said, I would like to congratulate you on writing an essay that should make sense, even to those who foolishly believes that voting could actually change anything.

In closing, I would like to add a quote from an Anonymous source: "If voting could really change things, it would be illegal."

Tony Russell said...

Nice that you commented on the relationship between the quote and the body of the post, because the quote was basically a way of laughing at myself. I'm not sure I agree with the quote, and regardless, I certainly HOPE it's wrong. I'm as serious about my humorous columns as a pastor is about his sermons, with the same intention to nudge people and the world in a different direction. Spirituality is about waking up. Maybe an occasional needle can help with that.

Tony Russell said...

Readers might be interested in an October 2002 report by U.S. PIRG called "The Best Elections Money Can Buy." [http://www.uspirg.org/home/reports/report-archives/campaign-finance-reform/campaign-finance-reform/the-best-elections-money-can-buy]. Although it's eight years old, almost all of it is still timely. A key point: "If campaign contributions did not affect election results, it is doubtful that donors would have any sway with legislators once elections are over."

Micah said...

Enjoyed this one, Dad. It reminded me of an argument from the Anti-Federalists (which I will mangle, I'm sure) regarding the proposed size of Congressional districts. The argument was that setting the ratio of citizens to representatives at 30,000:1 meant that people would be unable to select as their representative someone they truly knew, someone like them. Today's ratio has exploded to more than 600,000:1. People have no opportunity to select someone they know, someone like them. In the absense of first hand knowledge, what do people have to turn to, other than paid political ads and the corporate "news".