Money and Politics: Like Water Flowing [Hub Debate]

Money and Politics: recently, Salt Lake Tribune columnist George Pyle wrote that the onus is on voters to choose the leaders of our republic. 

Is it the voter’s responsibility to shift through the lies? Or is there a role for government in regulating speech and money in politics?


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Get money out of politics.”

Heightened transparency.”

Campaign finance reform.”

Restore strength to our democracy.”

Whatever the euphemism, the phrases  amount to one thing: veiled proposals to limit the means, manner, and amounts of spending on political campaigns.

Proponents point to the galactic sized amounts spent nationwide, arguing, among other things, that it allows corporations to control the political process, that it is wasteful, and that it corrupts the democratic processes of our republic.

In the wake of Citizen United, a Supreme Court ruling that effectively ended the government’s ability to restrict independent political expenditures by non-profit organizations, corporations, labor unions and other associations, advocates of limiting the spending of money in campaigns have turned to transparency as their back up plan.

It’s not hard to see why. After all, it’s accepted by almost everyone short of dictators, oppressive governments, and the NSA that citizens of a free country should know what their government is doing.

But here is where we hit a snag. Donations to candidates, which have been legally protected since the birth of the republic as an exercise of First Amendment free speech rights, are the opposite of the workings of government. They are the acts of free people expressing their opinions about who should govern and how. To wit, and also protected under the First Amendment, as people gather together and act in concert, the right of free association is protected, as well. When we begin to limit the rights of individuals to speak, as well as to limit the rights of individuals to speak collectively, we are essentially limiting First Amendment rights. We are placing restraints on association and on speech.

“But: rich people! Oligarchy!”

General_George_Washington_Resigning_his_CommissionThe wealthy have always had greater access to government and power than those without wealth, and while that’s no justification, we certainly should recognize that it isn’t a change for money to influence politics. George Washington didn’t get the job as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army because he just happened to be a brilliant general–on the contrary, he was a wealthy landowner who had used his wealth to accrue influence, first in the Virginia House of Burgesses and later as a leader in the Continental Congress.  Jefferson, Madison, the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, and the Bushes; all were wealthy individuals, and not due to their time in office, but they used that wealth to get there. Sometimes they did well; other times, not so much.

Guys like Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman, men pulled up by their own boot straps to lead the country, are decidedly in the minority of American politics.

Does that mean it’s a bad thing? No, just a mixed bag. If we want more people without means to be engaged in the process, we’ve got to start teaching civics at a younger age, and we’ve got to ennoble it. That said, the NFL will always be more entertaining than a city council meeting.

“But: corruption!”

This is the most obvious complaint, right? And there’s good social science to support that people will do things for money that they wouldn’t otherwise do. I’ll allow that corruption is a real and present danger.

But it always will be. And yet, the very process that brought down former Utah Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow demonstrates that the system works. Sure, it would be nice if we could avoid allowing crooks into office in the first place, but is the price too high if it limits speech and association rights?

There have always been those out there who believed Shurtleff and Swallow were corrupt. And there have been articles in the City Weekly that detailed that corruption for years. What changed things? The corruption rising to a level that engaged the public’s attention–and thereby the Utah Legislature’s attention–and creating the momentum to remove the cancer from the system.

Would increased transparency or campaign donation limits have prevented the nefarious-ness Shurtleff and Swallow are accused of? Perhaps.

On the other hand, in this day and age of almost unlimited access to information, transparency can have a chilling effect, as well. Sure, there have always been consequences to the use of free speech, but if we make it easy to retaliate against those who utilize their free speech rights, we will see fewer people willing to exercise their right to speech.

Don’t believe me?

Ask Brendan Eich, the former CEO of Mozilla, who was pushed out of the company he built because he made a donation to Proposition 8 several years back.

Ask the others who donated to Proposition 8 or supported its passage, only to see their names appear on lists of businesses to boycott. It wasn’t long after Proposition 8 passed that the artistic director of the California Musical Theatre in Sacramento and the president of the Los Angeles Film Festival were shown the door.

Ask the eight large donors to the Romney campaign who in 2012 found their names on the Obama campaign website labeled as having “less than reputable records.”

It was no accident that Justice Clarence Thomas, that resounding disappointment to the powers of racially charged politics, wrote in his dissent to the disclosure section of Citizens United that Americans should not be subject “to death threats, ruined careers, damaged or defaced property, or pre-emptive and threatening warning letters as the price for engaging in core political speech, the primary object of First Amendment protection.”

Money is like water–it always finds a way to get where it wants to go. But sometimes, we make the price too high ( the water becomes hard ). We create laws that are more harmful than protective and are in need of protection from the protection ( a Fleck water softener or filter ).

Hamstringing the First Amendment won’t help our country, but it will help the already powerful stay in power. Better civic participation is the only answer to keeping crooks out of office. Nothing else will.

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