We started meeting a couple of years ago in downtown Hanover every Tuesday, ostensibly to debate the big issues of constitutional law.
But the weekly lunches at the Reader’s Cafe are really civil discussions of law, local politics, the newspaper business and a lot of other things. A chance for me to meet any readers who care to drop by and talk about what they want to talk about.
But last Tuesday, observed one regular attendee, we had our first knock-down, drag-out constitutional-law debate. Or rather, the Democrats in the group gave me the verbal cowhiding they thought I so richly deserved for my support of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.
In 2010, the court in that 5-4 decision struck down political spending limits for individuals, corporations, unions and advocacy groups — the so-called super-PACs of modern American political discourse.
It’s become an article of faith on the left that the trials and tribulations of the republic can be pinned on that single Supreme Court decision. And now that conservative hero-governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin has survived recall, the chorus of condemnation has swelled yet again against the corporations and the super-PACs the Democrats like to blame for their political woes.
I’m no major fan of either corporations or super-PACs, but I have to admit I got a little strident myself at lunch last Tuesday. I probably looked more more like the crazed black-and-white speaker in one of those grainy
PAC ads myself than the thoughtful scholar/editor I like to think I am.
But while well-meaning people on both sides of the political divide should be rightfully concerned about the corrupting influences of corporate campaign spending, the Democratic rhetorical response, I believe, is short-sighted, hypocritical and ultimately undermines democracy and free speech.
The opponents of Citizens United are saying, in effect, that the other side’s campaign ads are too effective and must therefore be silenced. That’s censorship of the rawest kind, limiting speech based on the identity of the speaker, an idea offensive to the First Amendment. The fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones, the great Justice Louis Brandeis wrote nearly a century ago, “not enforced silence.”
We’ve long been told we have to protect bad speech like pornography and depictions of gratuitous violence to protect speech that really matters. So as much as the left doesn’t like the speech of corporations, I’m not prepared to silence groups ranging from the NEA to the NRA to the NAACP just because the Koch brothers want to support the Tea parties.
Especially when the Democrats, from Obama on down, have plenty of their own PAC money to fund their own good counsels. (Or their own sleazy attack ads, depending on your political perspective.)
Even before the votes were finally counted in Wisconsin the other day, Democrats were complaining that PAC money had cost them the election. They claimed they’d been outspent 8-1 in the recall, but that’s only true if you compare the spending of the candidates themselves. Because of a loophole in Wisconsin campaigning finance law, the candidate facing recall was able to directly accept much larger campaign contributions.
What those scary figures don’t include is nearly $14 million in outside spending by pro-Democrat groups, including national teacher and government-workers unions. Nor does it count the millions spent by the unions to launch the recall in the first place.
Yes, close to two-thirds of the outside money favored Walker, but the fact is, so did many voters.
Polls showed a majority of Wisconsin voters were opposed to recall on principle, whatever their political leanings. And the surveys indicated most had already made up their minds on the issue before the PAC ads were in full swing.
As long as the Democrats think their main problem is that their enemies talk too much, it distracts them from their own real challenges — a shortage of candidates who appeal to working stiffs or the ability to articulate a vision we can all get behind. There are a lot of Americans out there who agree with the Tea parties; pretending they are a corporate fiction isn’t going to win the Democrats many elections.
Ultimately, though, what I find so distasteful about all the hand-wringing over Citizens United is the unflattering assumption it makes about American voters. It says we are silly people incapable of evaluating what we hear, swayed by whichever side spends the most money.
For a bunch of Democrats, that doesn’t sound very democratic. Isn’t the whole idea of democracy that people are capable of deciding for themselves who has the best, if not the most expensive argument?
We all like to think we’re smarter than that, just not the guy on the other side of the aisle who happens to disagree with us.
Agree or disagree, join us for lunch next Tuesday. And don’t be afraid to speak up.
Like I say, more speech is always better than less, but I suspect some of the lunch crowd is tired of hearing me do most of the talking.
Marc Charisse is editor of The Evening Sun. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @esmcharisse
IF YOU GO
Evening Sun editor Marc Charisse meets interested readers for lunch and discussion at 1 p.m. Tuesdays at the Reader’s Cafe, 125 Broadway, near the Hanover square. All are welcome.