We take it for granted up here in Canada that our political class should tell us how to spend our own money in election campaigns. Perhaps not everywhere in Canada: they still don’t think that way in Alberta, where all the sane people seem to have congregated for a last stand. But in discussing the matter with friends here in Ontario—a province now subsidized by the taxpayers of Alberta—the idea that persons, whether human or corporate, should be allowed to spend their own money exactly as they see fit, to support causes they truly care about, is a non-starter.
Years of just such regulation have helped us to accept the proposition that Big Nanny knows better than we can ever know, what is good for us. For an election in which real issues were discussed might be “ugly.” Political discourse should be limited to questions of style, not substance, lest horrible, politically incorrect things get put on the table, and politicians have to explain exactly why they should be taken off. So, Nanny audits political spending through an immense bureaucracy, which has the effect of reversing power relations between the “wise” political parties and those crazy voters.
Is this the argument for campaign spending controls? I think it is the real argument, but it is not the argument commonly offered. The “official” argument is that, sans Big Nanny, those big corporate interests on Bay Street or wherever would “buy” the elections.
This premise, in turn, is even more insulting to the electorate. It holds that we can be bought, as easily as politicians. The insult is also quite unfair. Canadians, as all other electors, have a human tendency to resent obvious attempts to buy them, and to express that resentment through the secret ballot. (It might be different if we, like the politicians, had the opportunity to benefit from the pay-offs directly.)
There was an especially good example of this phenomenon stateside last week in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
A certain Martha Coakley, Democrat candidate for the U.S. Senate, started the campaign with vastly more cash than her Republican opponent, a certain Scott Brown. He, for his part, famously began by delivering lawn signs in his own pickup truck. As he began to catch on in the polls, for sure, he attracted money from across the country. But so did Ms Coakley, from desperate party efforts to save their seat.
One is reminded of the remark by perhaps Canada’s most laughable prime minister, Kim Campbell, that election campaigns are no time to discuss public policy. (That was the election in which her party held precisely two seats, neither of them hers.) Sometimes “the people” decide that they would like to discuss things anyway.
The current Tea Party phenomenon in the U.S. is an example of this. People who have matters of substance to discuss feel they have been blocked out of the political process, by big government and big media alike; that the current American legislative agenda is decidedly not in their interest. And they’ve been organizing themselves to great effect, with their own money.
In the last U.S. election, it could be argued that a great weight of cash helped candidate Obama crush candidate McCain. Obama himself “opted out” of public funding, from the moment it appeared more money could be raised outside that (unconstitutional) system. In fact, the money followed the charisma, and not vice versa.
In a split but efficacious decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech, trumps the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act of 2002, and any other attempt to restrict election spending by “corporate persons” (in the broad sense that includes unions and any other formal organization). As Justice Anthony Kennedy explained in the majority decision, “The government may regulate corporate speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether.”
The majority also homed in on this crucial point: that bureaucratic regulation of speech constitutes a de facto prior restraint, due to the time and expense involved in administrative proceedings. This is a point we have made up here, against “human rights” commissions and the like: that their very existence is antipathetic to an open society.
There are many and huge ramifications, but the chief one is that the decision attacks the contemporary lobbying system. In effect, those advancing special interests are condemned to lobbying the entire electorate, instead of just lobbying the politicians behind closed doors. This directly undermines the political class. It goes to the heart of their ability to broker deals not in the public interest, and pass them into law without public debate.
And that in turn is why the response to the decision from the political class has been unfriendly to the edge of berserk. They correctly understand that “politics as usual” is now under review, actually and not rhetorically.
Pray blow that wind north.