When the Supreme Court decided Buckley v. Valeo and declared, in essence, that money equaled speech, I agreed. I have always been a free-speech purist, and it seemed reasonable to me that the freedom to express my opinion should include my freedom to spend my money supporting issues and candidates with whom I agreed.
I was wrong. The Court was wrong. Money is not speech, and corporations are not “people.”
Citizens United should have been a predictable consequence of Buckley. Recent experience teaches us that reasonable restrictions on political spending and insistence on full disclosure are absolutely essential to the democratic process.
I do not make the argument that the candidate with the most money will always win an election. There are plenty of examples to the contrary, and lots of reasons besides financial ones why elections are won or lost. That said, in order to be viable, candidates need enough money to compete, to get their message out. Money more often than not makes the crucial difference.
Here in central Indiana, the airwaves are already full of gauzy, saccharine 30-second spots introducing us to a new and improved version of Mike Pence. The real Pence polls high negatives. He has a legislative record that is–to be kind about it–undistinguished, and a hard-right self-righteousness that is off-putting. He is also clearly favored to win the gubernatorial race, for two reasons: he will have lots and lots of money, courtesy of many of the same plutocrats who supported Scott Walker; and his opponent, who has shown an unfortunate propensity for unforced political errors, has thus far not raised nearly enough.
If Gregg continues his lackluster fundraising, Pence will continue to dominate the airwaves, airbrushing his own persona and redefining Gregg’s. By the time November rolls around, voters will choose between two caricatures bearing very little resemblance to the flesh-and-blood individuals upon whom they are based.
This situation is not unique to Indiana. Thanks to our conflation of a right to spend unlimited sums of money with a right to freedom of expression, we have turned campaigns into arms races, where a candidate’s ability to ingratiate himself with big-money donors outweighs any other strengths he may bring to the table. Even good candidates find themselves compelled to spend untold hours fundraising, at the expense of the sorts of “retail” politics in which voters have unmediated contact with candidates for office.
Given enough money and a really good media operation, Lady Gaga could run for office as a clone of Mother Teresa. It wouldn’t be any more of a stretch than Mike Pence pretending to be someone who cares more about jobs and the economy than about demonizing gays and de-funding Planned Parenthood.
Houston, we have a problem.