Today is a joyous day for plutocrats — those among the richest 1%ers in our land who love to effectively translate their financial clout into political control.
January 30 is an anniversary. No, it’s not the birthday of Plutarch — the namesake of the term. Actually, the Greek historian and philosopher who lived from 46-120 AD came down pretty hard on economic inequality when he said, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” Nor is today the anniversary of the unveiling of “trickle-down economics” — the disproven theory that showering tax breaks on the rich will increase investments and create tides of wealth that trickle down to the working class and below.
Today, rather, is the anniversary of an arena even further removed from every-day public awareness than Greek philosophy or economic theory — constitutional law. On this day 38 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Buckley v Valeo case, the 1976 controversial 5-4 decision which concretized the doctrine that money equal speech. The decision struck down a number of provisions of a 1974 Amendment to the 1971 Federal Elections Campaign Act, the first comprehensive effort to regulate campaign spending and contributions by the federal government.
The decision permitted laws establishing reasonable contribution limits (to prevent “corruption or its appearance”) from individuals and political action committees (PACs) but struck down provisions limiting contributions from candidates themselves, campaign expenditures and so-called “independent expenditures” from groups not connected to a candidate or campaign. What this meant in the real world was that city councils, state legislatures and congress could cap individuals contributions for particular political races, but couldn’t set maximum totals spent on political races. For example, state legislature can limit contribution amounts for legislative candidates to, say, $1000 per person and $1500 per PAC, but candidates can raise $10 million dollars — so long as they come in $1000 and $1500 chunks. If the candidate wishes to fund his/her own campaign, there are no limits — (s)he can cough up the entire $10 million.
The anchor of this decision is “money equals speech.” Few principles in our society are more sacred than the core First Amendment “free speech” right. Yet, we limit speech in our society in several ways. We’re not permitted to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. We’re not permitted to disrupt public meetings by speaking out when and for how long we want. We’re not permitted to sing Karaoke-style in the middle of the night over a loud speaker where we live. Reasonable rules exist that balance our free speech rights with those of others and with society.
However, Buckley doesn’t simply affirm speech is sacred speech, but that money is sacred speech. There’s a fundamental problem with this logic. If money equals speech, then those who have the most money have the most speech. The richest individuals and wealthiest corporate entities will be able to drown out the voices of most of the rest of us. Which is exactly why certain issues aren’t discussed, debated and decided in Congress, State Houses and City Halls that largely address the working class and poor. Plutocracy rules.
But here’s another point to the whole money/speech issue. If money = speech, then doesn’t speech = money? After all, don’t we learn in 5th grade math that if A = B, then B = A? If so, then political speech does, in fact, equal political money. Doesn’t that mean, therefore, that every time any of us speaks out politically we should get paid? Think about it. Every time we testify at a city council meeting, write a letter to an editor, call-in to a political talk show, send out a political email, post a picture of political sign we’ve made on Tumblr or Instagram, we should be paid for it. Hey, speech equals money. Therefore, time to cash in!
Of course the concept is ridiculous and unworkable. So is money equals speech.
Money is property, just like land, jewelry, cars, etc. We don’t need money to speak. The mere fact that it does take so much money to get ones voice out in the corporate-dominated media (radio, TV, newspapers, etc.) says less about the problem of stifling speech through regulating political money than it does about the corporate enclosure of our public spaces (i.e. town squares and airwaves). What now takes an increasingly expensive toll to enter used to be much more accessible, if not free, for all.
The Buckley decision is not the only cause for the growing plutocracy of our nation, but it’s a major one. Those who discount the whole notion that ours is fast becoming a plutocracy (if not already one) should read this week’s piece in Forbes.
The struggle for democracy (rule by the people) and against plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) will not be successful if we simply focus on changing politicians or changing laws. We have to change the Constitution. The growing national Move to Amend campaign’s push for a constitutional amendment to end corporate “personhood” (reversing a multitude of Supreme Court decision going back more than 100 years) and “money equals speech” (reversing Buckley v Valeo) is essential.
If and when that is accomplished, it will be a day year after year that will truly be worthwhile celebrating.