Last night on The Colbert Report, Colbert interviewed Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) who is proposing a Constitutional amendment banning corporate spending in elections. This is a response to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that opened the door for unlimited corporate spending on political advertising during elections.
In supporting the legislation, Dodd said that he doesn’t want elections decided by corporations. He said corporations will screw with election results and average citizens will be silenced. While I agree with his assessment that this will forever change the political landscape and not necessarily for the good, I take exception to an aspect of this reasoning.
The underlying assumption that unlimited corporate advertising in political campaigns is deadly to our democracy severely underestimates the American public. We all make comments about how “stupid” the hypothetical average American is and many people make generalized jokes about our national gullibility and passive political awareness. But implying that corporate advertising will decide elections is basically implying the voters will do whatever their television says. You may have just said in your mind “exactly, they do.” But the real implication of that is a low standard and sad state of affairs for our fellow citizens. I’m as disappointed as anyone about the low voter turnouts over the last few decades. Yet, I’m just not prepared to go so far as to imply (for Dodd, on national television) that most Americans cannot vote without a television commercial telling them what to do. Or our neighbors won’t be able to think for themselves if you have corporations running political ads during “The Bachelor.” It feels patronizing and insulting.
Secondly, if someone does actually believe that the American people are that naïve, gullible and uninterested, then what’s the difference? Those of us that do participate, watch debates and research candidates will be able to see through the corporate ads anyway and it will be mostly a waste of their money.
I guess the big fear is that corporations will falsely rile up individuals or be so in favor of one party vs. the other, that people who wouldn’t normally vote or don’t care will simply cast thoughtless votes. This could change the outcome of the election by outnumbering those of us that are paying attention. This is the reality we live in.
In an effort not to end on a totally depressing note, Dodd did make a few useful points that bear repeating. His goal is not to limit corporate speech simply because it’s corporate speech but to ensure an equal opportunity for all to be heard (which is impossible if Wal-Mart is spending $10 million on a candidate). Second, he made a funny analogy to Senators ending up like NASCAR drivers with corporate logos on their jackets. He imagined a world where “the Senator from GE” will be elected. The fact that this changing political environment will only make politicians more self-interested and not better representatives of the people is the best reason that I’ve heard to overturn this new ruling.