Speech may be free in the United States, but democracy is getting awfully expensive.
As the 2012 election season draws to a close, cash registers are still ringing up banner sales from campaign advertising funds and outside groups’ stashes of cash flooding the country’s airwaves with a fury barely surpassed by Hurricane Sandy.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, spending on all federal races this year is approaching $6 billion, smashing the previous record of $5.3 billion, set four short years ago. In 2004, the total was a mere $4.2 billion.
This new stratospheric level of spending is largely the result of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens v. United decision that linked free speech to the ability of wealthy donors to buy as much air time and ad space as they desired.
(They desired a lot, and they found more than a few partners – willing broadcasters all too happy to funnel back-to-back-to-back campaign spots into the homes and heads of hundreds of millions of weary American voters.)
Supreme Court Let the Super PAC Money Flow
In its landmark ruling, the court freed super PACs – not-for-profit political action committees – and so-called advocacy groups from any fiscal or fund-raising constraints. The result: an unbridled buying frenzy – especially for TV and radio time.
In early September, these groups spent $19 million a week on their presidential efforts. By October 21, the tab grew to $70 million a week. Who knows what level of profligacy will be attained in the final week before Election Day rolls around (on Tuesday)?
Never mind how much good that money could do had it made it into the hands of other (dare I say legitimate) not-for-profits. Cancer research. Education. The war against terrorism. The national debt.
For years, reformers posited that unless and until big money was removed from electoral politics, we would never rid ourselves of a dysfunctional and corrupt system that reduces the notion of “one-man-one-vote” into so much naïve blather.
And while there are many specific proposals for campaign finance reform aiming to heal our broken democracy, none of them seem to have made the slightest dent in the status quo. Indeed, over the past several years, one can reasonably argue that we’ve gone from bad to much, much worse.
At this sorry point in our 236 year-old experiment of self-government, it probably would take a constitutional amendment to reverse the damage done by Citizens v. United.
However, there is another way in which the will of the people can bring about at least some change in what most Americans will agree is simply a lousy way to go about voting for our leaders.
Time to Recapture America’s Airwaves from the Politicians
We need to assert our rights as the owners of the country’s airwaves – i.e., the means that TV and radio stations so blithely offer up to politicians and their allies without any thought to the poisonous effect that super-saturated campaign advertising has on the body politic.
The fact is, while others may own the studios, broadcast towers and cable lines, we the people own the transmission media.
That’s right. We lease the airwaves to the broadcasters. It’s our property under federal law and it’s time we acted like responsible stewards by requiring some reasonable standards of behavior and restraint.
So here’s my proposal for a kinder, gentler and shorter campaign season:
- TV and radio campaign advertising in any media market shall be limited to two weeks before a primary election and four weeks before a general election.
- Candidates are to be prohibited from saying the name of their opponent or using any photographs, films, or audio or video recordings depicting said opponent for the purpose of negative commentary.
- No campaign shall be allowed to advertise more than once an hour on any particular medium.
- All campaign advertising shall be vetted for truthfulness by an independent, non-partisan commission before being allowed to air.
I’m sure there are more and equally effective ways in which venality, invective and mendacity can be removed from the airwaves, diminishing their assaults on our psyches. And changes such as these would only require a concerted effort on our part and a majority vote in Congress – much easier than amending the Constitution.
So let’s do it, people. If a restaurant can enforce: “No shirt. No shoes. No service,” for the sake of cleanliness and decency, the rest of us should be able to mandate comparable prohibitions for the sake of our democracy.
Try: “No slime. No slander. No making stuff up!”
Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it seven years ago, helping birth Debt.org into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering college and professional sports, which are the fantasy worlds of finance. His work has been published by the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Sports Illustrated and Sporting News, among others. His interest in sports has waned some, but his interest in never reaching for his wallet is as passionate as ever. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.