Reich needs to get a grip. Granted, anyone committed to political equality has to be concerned whenever unequally distributed dollars rather than equally distributed votes decide elections. But is Reich really unable to tell the difference between bribing politicians and financing political speech?“A relatively few Americans are buying our democracy as never before. And they're doing it completely in secret.
“Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into advertisements for and against candidates -- without a trace of where the dollars are coming from. They're laundered through a handful of groups. Fred Maleck, whom you may remember as deputy director of Richard Nixon's notorious Committee to Reelect the President (dubbed Creep in the Watergate scandal), is running one of them. Republican operative Karl Rove runs another. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a third.
“The Supreme Court's Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission made it possible. The Federal Election Commission says only 32 percent of groups paying for election ads are disclosing the names of their donors. By comparison, in the 2006 midterm, 97 percent disclosed; in 2008, almost half disclosed.
“We're back to the late 19th century when the lackeys of robber barons literally deposited sacks of cash on the desks of friendly legislators. The public never knew who was bribing whom.”
We can place the political uses to which dollars are put on a continuum according to how much political inequality they cause.
Outright bribery, the exchange of a representative’s vote for money, stands at the malign end of the spectrum. When a legislator’s vote is bought and paid for, the buyer’s preferences count more than those of all the representative’s other constituents put together. This is the limiting case of dollars preempting votes.
Normal lobbying, the use of dollars to wield influence with public decision-makers privately (literally or figuratively, in the “lobby” of a legislature or an administrative agency) is somewhere in the middle of the continuum. Lobbyists' clients work their will on executive and legislative decision-makers by controlling the menu of options brought before voters on election day. Unorganized voter preferences carry less weight in public decision-making than they otherwise would to the extent that they count only within parameters negotiated among politicians and moneyed interests in private. That doesn’t mean we should try to stop lobbying—we all enjoy a First Amendment right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." But lobbying’s inegalitarian effects can be mitigated by transparency—money buys less political influence insofar as the influencing has to be done out in the open.
Anyway you slice it, using money to disseminate political speech stands at the benign end of the continuum because it’s a way of exerting influence openly through the consciousness and will of voters. The identity of the messenger doesn’t have much to do with the persuasiveness of the message. Voters don’t need to know who’s speaking to figure out that the speaker isn’t likely to be a disinterested party. The amount of influence exerted through speech is almost entirely a function of the message’s content and the rhetorical skill with which it’s conveyed.
Granted, when channels of communication are scarce, corporate money could crowd out other voices by driving up the price of getting a message out. But that’s never been less of a problem than it is now in the age of viral youtubes, when new technologies are lowering the price of transmitting information and organizing political constituencies every day.
Under the circumstances, the idea that transparency about who’s funding political ads is the only thing that can save us from government by robber barons is merely funny. Why aren’t more liberals laughing?