The battle lines were immediately drawn following the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down certain restrictions on corporate spending in political campaigns. Many conservatives, particularly Republicans, cheered the decision as a victory for free speech. More liberal observers, as echoed by the President, decried the ruling as a “stampede of special interest money in our politics.”
I’ve always been of two minds on this subject, finding it far less clear cut than my more partisan friends on either side of the aisle. A certain libertarian streak still resides in me which puts forth a knee jerk reaction against “corporate fat cats” having a larger voice in the political arena than the blue collar man working for an hourly wage. And this voice also forces the question of whether or not corporations (or unions or other large entities) are actually “people” in the sense of being entitled to first amendment rights.
The conservative will quickly point out that the corporation may be an “entity” but it is comprised of people – perhaps tens of thousands of them – who have earned money through dint of hard labor, and should be able to exert that force in the form of political voice. The liberal will cluck his tongue and point out that the vast majority of the workers are primarily concerned with keeping their jobs and securing their paycheck, while the decision to use corporate funds for political speech is made by at most a handful of people at the top.
“Aha!” the conservative may respond. “Is not the livelihood of the worker and the future security of that paycheck tied to the welfare of the company? As such, the corporate leaders are, in a sense, still speaking for the benefit of the worker.”
This conversation can – and does – go on for days, and it applies equally to labor unions who may be supporting the exact opposite platform of the one endorsed by the corporation. As I said initially, it’s an important topic of discussion and not nearly as clear as some on either side might wish to make it appear.
Looking to the Founding Fathers doesn’t provide us much relief in the debate. True, Madison wrote at length in Federalist 10 about the need for free speech, but was largely silent on when, where and in what force that right would be exercised. It’s not as if revolutionary era America was a classless society. There may not have been television, radio or the internet in those days, but wealthy landowners with power, influence and access to a printing press were already engaging in political speech at a much louder volume than the workers in the fields, and this fact didn’t seem to overly bother the Constitution’s signatories.
Further, conservatives may find some comfort in the nature of unequal volume of political speech based on financial muscle in one of the core tenets of conservatism. Unlike the majority of liberals, conservatives across the board tend to believe in a vision of America as a land of equal opportunity, but not equal outcome. Everyone must have access to the same opportunity to make money and succeed. Those who work the hardest and achieve the most are entitled to the fruits of that labor. In this sense, everyone has the opportunity to exercise a loud voice in political debate if they strive to build up the power to do so. And nowhere in this process is the poor person denied that chance or having their voice suppressed, as the option of the soapbox in the public square always remains.
This line of thought leads to another scenario which argues against the court’s minority opinion. Where are we to find the real damages to free speech from this decision? Not every “corporation” has the same set of interests. Some will find their needs best suited by Democrats, while others will doubtless back Republicans. Similarly, well financed petroleum advocacy groups, for example, might back one candidate while a huge labor union might choose to back her opponent.
And what is left beyond that except an unrealistic demand that each individual voice in the country be given the same air time as the next? That idea is preposterous from the start. Should we assign the same amount of radio time to one individual who wants to outlaw the growing of broccoli as to ten million people who don’t want socialized health care or who want to legalize gay marriage? Volume in political speech comes from raw numbers of tongues as well as the bank balance of particular interest groups. A popular message will always find a way to be heard while fringe ideas are mostly left crying in the wilderness. This, again, speaks to the difference between opportunity and outcome, though from a different angle.
I remain unsure what to think about the recent court decision. Both the majority opinion and the dissent seemed to be worded in rather partisan, sniping tones, and neither finds much basis in the Constitution without engaging in “bold penumbras” of deduction. But in the cold light of day, my support of limits on corporate “speech” in this sense feels more like populist, Robespierre sentimentality, while arguments opposing such limitations look to be grounded in a realistic – if perhaps cold and brutal – acceptance of the reality of life in a free market nation such as ours.