You never give me your money

Believe it or not, The Beatles had money problems. Because they were musicians and young men in their 20s at the height of their popularity, they wasted lots of money on the kinds of things young men are keen on (like cars) and bad investments. Paul complained a bit about how he felt they had been screwed over in a song on Abbey Road. (Mind you, he was dead at the time, so no one was really listening.)

A group of people who rarely have money problems, on the other hand, is the politicians of America. Although you always see them with their hands out, they are very rarely strapped for cash. Why? Because there is always a surfeit of individuals and groups willing and able to pony up greenbacks so that their favorite politicans won’t be forced to eat at the soup kitchen or sleep at the homeless shelter. There are those in America (namely the people who have profited from this system) who believe that this is the way things should be. After all, this is the way things have been for rather a long time and lots of people feel it works really well.

But it doesn’t. Not for the people whose voices are drowned out by the voices of the prosperous and generous. As a society we have fallen for this queerest of notions that speech equals money. This is what people opposed to the public financing of campaigns always say: you can’t tell General Electric or Rupert Murdoch or Bill Gates or Enron or Bank of America that they can’t contribute as much of their money as they want to in order to elect or reelect their favorite candidates, because you are then restricting their First Amendment rights to free speech. This is of course ridiculous. Nowhere in the First Amendment does it say anything about making political contributions. I invite you to read it over if you don’t believe me.

What does it really mean to say that GE is a person, like you and me? Among other things, it means that GE has a voice in government just like we do, except that GE’s voice is backed by its massive wealth. I’m not really picking on GE, except that as a corporate giant that happens to own one of the three major media outlets (NBC), it has a vested interest in supporting public policies that make money for mainstream media and energy conglomerates. So it would have a vested interest in opposing, for example, regulations that would limit media ownership in order to provide for a diversity of viewpoints being represented within a market and regulations that may require polluting energy-production facilities to meet government-mandated standards for emissions.

Let’s not kid ourselves, shall we? The American political system is a quid pro quo affair. If I give you money, I expect you to support a legislative agenda that benefits me, and if you don’t, I may decide to support someone else next time. In practical terms, this means that a corporate citizen who may be able to give a candidate $350,000 to get elected will get much more attention than an average Joe who may be able to contribute only $20. This means that Democrats and Republicans are basically (with far too few exceptions) in the pockets of the people with the fattest pocketbooks; in other words, nobody’s really looking out for you or me.

With decisions like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court is taking steps in the wrong direction. Instead of trying to create a level playing field for everyone, the justices basically said, “We don’t care if corporate money is corrupting elections on all levels because money equals speech, and you can’t abridge a citizen’s right to free speech.” Money is speech only because we’ve all collectively agreed that that is somehow okay. It’s okay for the corporation with the multibillion-dollar bottom line to advance its agenda for promoting its own interests at the expense of the interests of regular (natural) persons by flooding the airwaves with radio and television ads and buying elected (and appointed) officials. But this is not the political system that we are supposed to live under; it’s supposed to be “one man, one vote” not “one dollar, one vote.”

What can be done about this? We need real and comprehensive campaign finance reform, and by that I mean this: complete public financing of elections. Give all candidates that meet a certain threshold of viability at each level a fixed amount of money and airtime. Take all corporate money and individual donations over $20 out of the equation completely. Do this and we may start to get some honest representation by people who actually represent the people of their districts, states, counties, municipalities, or the country at large.

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