Sunday, May 2, 2010

Right vs. Quantity of Expression. The Values and Groups Involved.

The American citizen is a fickle being. This is nothing new. However, in regards to the debate over campaign finance reform, it is can be disconcerting how fickle the American citizen can be towards democratic values. At the heart of the debate over campaign finance reform is the Constitutional right of expression and the equality of impact of such expression. The article "Value Conflict, Group Affect, and the Issue of Campaign Finance" by J. Tobin Grant from Southern Illinois University and Thomas J. Rudolph from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published by the Midwest Political Science Association in July 2003 examines the conflicted values and effect of interest groups on how the American citizen perceives or supports campaign finance reform.

The authors note that there are different ways to frame the campaign finance debate. For those who opposed campaign finance reform and any limit on political expenditure, any new reform or limit is an offense to our Constitutional right to expression. 'Money equals speech' has been the law of the land since Buckely v. Valeo. The case is truly a landmark and is quoted in the article, "A restriction on the amount of money a perosn or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression... This is because virtually every means of communicating ideas in today's mass society required the expenditure of money..." (p.454) As an avid campaign volunteer and intern I might disagree with this statement. I have been able, without money, to persuade citizens to vote and express my views to the public. Of course where I can speak to a few hundred residents of Northfield or St. Olaf over the course of a few months, a television commercial that cost a campaign millions and is uploaded to YouTube can reach millions of citizens in seconds can shape a whole debate. My efforts are nil in comparison.

Yes, speech with money is more powerful and should be free, however it is louder than the voices of the people. It is louder than my voice. It can affect elections more than any single citizen or concern. It is all speech, yet there is no equality in quantity or impact. Reasonable limits ensure a fairer debate, that more voices can be heard. This argument is referred to by the authors as the Political Equality Frame. Every interest group and citizen should have equality to a certain quantity of expression. No one interest group, or now after Citizens United multinational corporations, should drown out the legitimate speech of others. Certainly as the 'pragmatic idealist' I believe that everyone should have a quantity to their political speech that is influential and that legislative restrictions on what can be spent might contribute to a fairer debate. However, such legislation cannot have the loopholes that exist in current law for '527's or soft money. We can do better.

A major obstacle in accomplishing a fairer debate during elections is that regardless of how the American citizen feels on campaign finance reform on principle- either that money is speech and should not be restricted or that there should be restrictions to allow for equality of expression and impact, the feelings of the citizenry depend heavily on how the interest groups they are a part of or 'like' are affected. The authors of the aforementioned article measure the effect of group centric thinking on the issue as well as framing campaign finance reform in terms of the right of expression or an issue of political equality. The framing was affected by the group centric thinking. One can speak in favor of campaign finance reform in reference to the gay rights advocacy group they are a part of or 'like' will be able under reform to compete with the corporations that finance opponents to gay rights. Or one can speak out against campaign finance reform if they feel their business will lose influence in the political sphere. A citizen can be for political equality- which insures that every voice is heard and disregard the rights of others to express their views. Or a citizen can be for the right of expression for everyone- that the right cannot be restricted even in regards to the funding of expression. Each stance is dependent on the group or concern involved.

This dichotomy does not bode well for our democratic values. Democratic theory and a healthy democracy depend on both the right of expression and equality of access. The right of expression for the gay rights advocate is only secure if his or her opponent is also allowed to express his or her false if not hateful opposing view. Yet the right of expression for either means little if one side is heard more than the other or one is silenced.

If money is a measure of access and quantity of expression then it should be regulated. Period. Reform can secure both the right and quantity of expression.

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