The Chair Recognizes the Senator from GE

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.

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11 responses to “The Chair Recognizes the Senator from GE

  1. There is a slight flaw in the argument you’re making above. Research has shown that Americans do rely upon elite messages (this includes advertising) for political information (see Zaller 1992; Neuman 1986, Iyengar and Kinder 1987). Moreover, research has shown that individuals have completely incoherent viewpoints (see Converse 1964). This means that individuals will likely be quite swayed by media appeal. This matters because those who can see through the crap aren’t the only ones voting. Therefore, corporations are having a massive impact on who is elected. That’s scary to me.

    • Agreed, scary to me too. But here’s my question – why is that the corporation’s fault? So the implication of what your saying is that the Supreme Court doesn’t believe that we need to protect Americans from themselves, but that those against this ruling believe they need to protect us from our own voting habits. Isn’t the bigger issue the fact that we have a variety of motivations for voting and will apparently vote however we’re instructed too by marketing, advertising and political campaigns?

  2. A couple points on this. I find it interesting what Dems like the soon to be ex-Senator Dodd are failing to mention. The ruling said that there cannot be limits on corporations AND labor unions on political spending. It essesntially takes political spending back to the way it was in the year 2000 and before. After the ruling all of the Dems want laws to limit corporate spending but are not mentioning reshackling the labor unions which have a disproportionate amount of influence considering on 7% of the country is a member of a union.

    My second point is something you’ve already mentioned. No matter how much money is spent the voters have 100% of the power and all of the political spending in the world can be overcome be voters. The same logic follows for people who complain that there should be term limits for congress, the American people hold the keys to the congress but most people dont realize it. We have the power but we’ve allowed the minority(congress) convince enough people that they are in charge. We the people are in charge and the only way they take that away is by making those in charge dependent on them.

  3. Great post!

    You pose an interesting question, and I’ll try to answer it as best as I can.

    The freedom of speech we have is in the very first amendment. Number 1. Why? Because the ability to engage in political debate is a very important power. I am not insulting any Americans by saying I don’t want to give that power to Corporations.

    You’re right in saying that Corporations won’t “decide” our elections, but if we believe that Freedom of Speech has any value at all, then we must also believe that giving that power to a new group will have an effect.

    Moreover, I will use a volume analogy. We have laws that prevent individuals from making too much noise at certain times and places. You can have your radio up loud during the day, not the night. You can use a megaphone on your land, you can’t on a public street. If you walk up to a cop and scream in his ear, you will get arrested. 😛

    I say the same should apply to money. I don’t have a problem with Corporations having political opinions on their websites or employee newsletters or magazines or offices or what have you, nor do I have a problem if you disagree with this comment. But in the same way I don’t want you to come to my house and scream in my ear, I don’t want Corporations to be able to spend unlimited sums of money on my TV.

    It’s a volume issue, no political candidate can compete with that much money.

    • The volume argument is key. I think you’ve touched on a necessary point about this issue and most issues in our society – the practical implications. You are right, and I agree, in saying that we must understand and negotiate the practical ramifications of our laws/decisions. The practical implications of Citizens United should be given much more weight and attention than the theoretical aspects.

  4. “The volume argument is key.”

    I believe so too. Possibly THE key.

    “The practical implications of Citizens United should be given much more weight and attention than the theoretical aspects.”

    Well, and here you’ll see me magically transform into a wonky politkical geek, I think each are equally important. Long-term, the theoreticals are more important. Precedent matters, a lot.

    And not to advertise too much, but if you click my name, I’ve done about a dozen or more posts on this issue. The one titled “Freedom to Listen” I think is especially relevent.

    • I see what your saying and reviewed “Freedom to Listen.” The problem is the corporate money/speech drowning out other’s freedom of speech, effectively trumping it. So, isn’t that a practical problem? Theoretically, we’d prefer not to have speech limited and the government not telling private companies (used here to mean not government-owned or operated) or citizens how they can spend their time/money/resources. I didn’t want to get too abstract because then the problem becomes the government controlling what is advertised, exposed and public during elections/campaigns. So, I approached this as common sense or practicality being a necessary function to avoid corporations with million dollar mega-phones.

  5. The first amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    The key is NO law that prevents freedom of speech.

    While you may not agree with corporations spending vast sums of money to get their point across there is no constitutional argument for limiting it.

    Don’t mistake my point of view as defending corporations, I’m actually a big believer in small business. I have family who own their own businesses, I prefer local places to large corporate entities and I, one day, would like to own my own business. The problem I have is that once the precedent is set that the government can limit speech on one group it’s only a matter of time until they find a new group that they will limit.

  6. “Don’t mistake my point of view as defending corporations… The problem I have is that once the precedent is set that the government can limit speech on one group it’s only a matter of time until they find a new group that they will limit”

    I will be careful not to make that mistake. 🙂

    “The key is NO law that prevents freedom of speech”

    Well, the problem with that, is that though you are reading the law right, it has never, NEVER, been followed to the letter. Not ever.

    Here’s a little list I wrote up: libel, slander, fraudulent advertising, obscenity, child pornography, unlicensed broadcasts, “fighting words,” ads that discrimination on the basis of race, words serving a criminal function (“I’ll pay you to kill that guy”), copyright infringement, revealing military secrets, and disturbing the peace.

    If that’s not enough to prove that the US Courts have never followed the “No law” part to the letter, here’s a challenge, (if it’s a bit snarky, and I’ll ask you to forgive me in advance, but here goes anyway) I double dog dare you to get a mega phone, walk up to a cop, hold the megaphone up to his ear, and call him a “c***-sucking, mother-f***ing, a**hole.” If you are right, then you can use the first amendment to avoid any sort of arrest of fines or jail time.

    If I’m right, you’ll get arrested and fined and maybe even spend the night in jail.

    After you do that test, come back and tell me that there are no limits on speech. I for one would like a similar volume limit on corporations. 😛

    • I don’t believe anyone’s speech should be stifled no matter what they say as long as they are being civil.

      I was in the military and know full well the limits of free speech, I also know I pushed them as far as possible and sometimes crossed the line. I’m very libertarian in my thinking and don’t like the “thought police” telling me what I can and can’t say or do.

      If someone came up to me and accused me of being a f*ggot lover because of my support for gays in the military that wouldn’t bother me and they would also not be limited by the law to say that. If they came up and expressed the same sentiment but yelled and screamed it and was acting like a lunatic they could get arrested, not for the words they said but by their actions. Disturbing the peace is not what you say but how you act.

      I love spirited debate and I think if more people could share their point of view, much like we are doing now, and resect the other sides point of view that would go a long way towards getting things done in this country.

      Too often in Washington neither side sees any merit in the other side. If you believe that someone else doesn’t have valid ideas then you will not listen and work together. Republican’s and Democrats not only see a different solution for a problem but feel that the other side is devoid of valid solutions. I think if politicians agreed on the problems but differed on the solutions instead of demonizing each other, more would get done.

      Environmental policy is a great example. Dems believe the sky is falling because of the burning of fossil fuels, Repubs believe the sky is falling because the middle east controls the oil. So the fight about each others beliefs instead of the solutions. If this country could develop an alternate energy source whether it be natural gas or a technology that isn’t developed yet it would solve both sides concerns. I know I’m off on a tangent here, but Washington needs to start finding the common ground on solutions not problems.

      It would be like two doctors disagreeing on the prognosis but agreeing on the treatment yet refusing to treat until they agreed on the prognonsis. It is silly.

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