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Ending "Money Is Speech" Is the Only Way to Restore Democracy
We can have democracy here in America, or we can have leaders of government beholden to billionaires and corporations - we can’t have both
As long as money is considered First Amendment-protected “free speech” under US law, we will remain gridlocked in a corrupt stasis where the will of the American people is ignored in deference to the will of billionaires and giant corporations.
I just checked, and there’s $86 in the pocket of my jeans. I rarely use cash anymore; it’s probably been in there for at least a month, maybe two. And in that entire time, I’ve never heard a single word, sound, or even a grunt from my small wad of dollar bills.
Nonetheless, in defiance of literally hundreds of good government laws passed over a 200-year period by both federal and state legislatures and signed by multiple presidents and governors, “conservatives” on the US Supreme Court have declared that my $86 is “speech.”
Now, I understand their logic. If I want my congressman to sponsor legislation to exempt most of my income from radio talk shows or book writing from taxation, the way they have for hedge funds and billionaires like Musk, Bezos, and Zuckerberg, I could try to talk him into it using words and logic. Actual “speech.”
Or, alternately, I could simply hand him the cash for his next campaign (although it would, no doubt, take more than $86). Either way, words or money, I can “convince” him to see things my way, so, arguably, my money is at least as effective as my voice in persuading my member of Congress to sponsor and pass the talk host/writer’s tax break I want.
But you could also say that about giving him a week’s vacation in Fiji at a 5-star resort, or an around-the-world cruise, or a $2 million antique Ming dynasty vase. Not unlike the way the billionaires of the Koch network have wined and dined conservative Supreme Court justices for years, any of those things could arguably convince him to see the wisdom of my tax break.
Weirdly, though, the Supreme Court doesn’t consider any of those things to be “speech.” Just money. Which rightwing billionaires and massive corporations have a lot of, but average Americans don’t.
The doctrine of money as free speech, invented from whole cloth entirely by the US Supreme Court, is the deadliest poison now coursing through the veins of our republic.
It pushes aside actual speech, drowning genuine arguments and debates with unending tsunamis of faux-outrage attack ads on TV. It warps the judgement and ethics of politicians. It causes legislators to support policies and laws that are actually harmful to the majority of the citizens of the nation.
If billionaires and industry were no longer able to legally bribe politicians, in short order we would see an end to:
*Absurdly priced pharmaceuticals
*The most expensive internet in the developed world
*Deaths from a lack of healthcare
*The most expensive cell service in the developed world
*Predatory health insurance companies
*Laws making it harder to vote
*Laws making it harder to solarize your home
The kind of political bribery that is perfectly legal today was largely illegal back in the days when presidents responded to the voters instead of just their largest donors. The Tillman Act of 1907, for example, made it a federal felony for any corporation to give money or any thing of value to any candidate for federal office.
Politicians answerable to the voters instead of the special interests is how we got a whole series of programs that today could never pass Congress:
*Worker safety laws
*The EPA, SEC, FDA, USDA, etc.
*Free Land Grant colleges
*The world’s finest public schools
*Eisenhower interstate highway system
The Tillman Act and hundreds of other good-government laws regulating money in politics — some from the 19th century, many passed after the Nixon bribery scandals in the 1970s — were overturned by the Supreme Court in a series of “money is the same thing as speech and is thus protected by the First Amendment” rulings.
Every single one of these programs is today opposed by either rightwing billionaire ideologues, industry, or both. The GOP, entirely in the pocket of billionaire and corporate interests, openly opposes every one of them, even though the majority of Americans support them all and frankly want more help and protections.
This Supreme Court doctrine is quite literally paralyzing America and blocking large, meaningful action on many of these issues and on climate change, thus endangering future generations.
Finland recently outlawed homelessness: they require government at all levels to provide housing to everybody in the country. Finns don’t say money is the same thing as speech.
In Germany every corporation that has more than 500 employees has union members making up a third of its board of directors and every company with more than 2000 employees has 50% union representation on their board. Germans don’t say money is the same thing as speech.
In France competition in the internet and cell sectors is so intense (because they’ve outlawed monopolies like Comcast or Verizon) that you can get cell service for two different phones, high-speed broadband, and hundreds of channels of cable and movies all together for less than $100 a month. Cell service or Internet alone can be as low as $20 a month. The French don’t say money is the same thing as speech.
In Canada, drugs cost as little as 20% of what they cost here; when we lived in Montpelier Vermont, every Saturday we could watch from our front window as Bernie Sanders loaded up busses full of elderly citizens to head to Montreal to pick up their prescriptions. Canadians don’t say money is the same thing as speech.
In Denmark not only is college free all the way up to PhD and MD levels, but the government gives college students a $900 monthly stipend to help with rent, meals, and books. Danes don’t say money is the same thing as speech.
In Norway there’s no billion-dollar industry charging people for tax preparation; instead, the government computes your annual income tax bill and sends you their calculations along with a breakout of where that money will be spent. Norwegians don’t say money is the same thing as speech.
In Taiwan when you’re born you’re given an identifier that’s your health insurance card, your voter registration card, and your free access to college. Taiwanese don’t say money is the same thing as free speech.
We can have democracy here in America, or we can have leaders of government beholden to billionaires and corporations. We can’t have both.
In Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent to Citizens United, he wrote that his colleagues were working “to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation.”
“The Court’s blinkered and aphoristic approach to the First Amendment,” Stevens wrote, “will undoubtedly cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress, and the States to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process.”
This Court-invented doctrine of money-as-speech has also made us ripe for the picking by foreign governments that see the very ongoing existence of American democracy as a threat to the legitimacy of their own oligarchies, as I laid out in The Hidden History of American Oligarchy.
Stevens’ dissent warned that the Supreme Court had not only thrown the door open to American billionaires and corporations corrupting our politicians and political process: they also rolled out the welcome mat to foreign governments.
“If taken seriously, our colleagues’ assumption that the identity of a speaker has no relevance to the Government’s ability to regulate political speech would lead to some remarkable conclusions. Such an assumption would have accorded the propaganda broadcasts to our troops by ‘Tokyo Rose’ during World War II the same protection as speech by Allied commanders.”
“Tokyo Rose,” of course, was the famous woman who was constantly on the radio listened to by US solders in the Pacific theater during WWII, telling our people in uniform that the war was lost, Japan would win, and we should just go home. Her broadcasts were designed to destroy our sense of solidarity.
Numerous Federal Election Commission complaints have been filed over the past six years alleging foreign money is now flowing into the campaigns of Republican candidates for office, including the Trump campaign. In every case the three Republicans on the six-person board that controls the FEC have blocked any action to punish the billionaires, corporations, or foreign governments.
Meanwhile, Republicans taking money and other favors from Russia are now saying it’s time to cut Ukraine loose and leave their people to the tender mercies of Vladimir Putin.
And it’s not just foreign governments willing to harm us in the context of war that are tearing America apart. There are also numerous foreign corporations running ad and PR campaigns, for example fossil fuel or pharma operations, who want to corruptly exploit us — and then lie to us about it — just to make more money.
Some climate change obstructions, for example, have been tracked back to state-owned oil operations in the Middle East, and many of the big pharma operations funding campaign ads on TV right now are based overseas.
All of this adds to Americans’ certainty that our system is corrupt, making us even more cynical and thus vulnerable to foreign trolls who work to turn us against both American democracy and each other.
“More pertinently,” Stevens added in the next sentence of his dissent, “it would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans…”
And, sure enough, this generation’s version of Tokyo Rose has installed herself — or millions of versions of herself — into the fabric of our social media, making it appear that support for white supremacy, violence, and the destruction of our democratic institutions is far broader in America than it actually is.
As former FBI Assistant Director Frank Figliuzzi noted a year ago:
“Divide & conquer: A sample of 32,315 pro-Rittenhouse hashtag tweets, Nov 19-20 , showed 29,609 with disabled geolocation. Of those, 17,701 were listed as ‘foreign,’ but a deep scrub revealed most of those were in Russia, China, and the EU.”
Before Citizens United if Russia or China had tried to place political ads in American media, they would have been turned down. Now they can just run them through an American shell company, as we’ve seen recently with front groups shilling for multiple foreign governments while attacking progressive Democratic politicians.
Leading up to the 2016 election, Facebook was awash in Russian troll accounts promoting Donald Trump, as I lay out in The Hidden History of Big Brother. Many believe he wouldn’t have won the White House without them: his campaign manager Paul Manafort was regularly passing secret GOP insider polling information to Russian intelligence operatives.
Justice Stevens, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 99, looked into the future to this pseudo-populist moment, emphasizing how the Citizens United decision of his 5 rightwing colleagues would corrupt American democracy:
“In addition to this immediate drowning out of noncorporate voices, there may be deleterious effects that follow soon thereafter. Corporate ‘domination’ of electioneering can generate the impression that corporations dominate our democracy.
“When citizens turn on their televisions and radios before an election and hear only corporate electioneering, they may lose faith in their capacity, as citizens, to influence public policy. A Government captured by corporate interests, they may come to believe, will be neither responsive to their needs nor willing to give their views a fair hearing.
“The predictable result is cynicism and disenchantment: an increased perception that large spenders ‘call the tune’ and a reduced ‘willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance.’”
This disconnection of our corporate-owned political system from We The People drove much of the rage that ended in the election of Donald Trump and the assault on our Capitol on January 6th.
We saw an example just this week when we learned that Judge Cory Wilson of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who just ruled that the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) was unconstitutionally funded, took piles of campaign cash from Wall Street, which hates the CFPB.
Even American politician would become subservient to these corporate corrupters of our democracy, Stevens said, further fueling and driving the anger of citizens:
“To the extent that corporations are allowed to exert undue influence in electoral races, the speech of the eventual winners of those races may also be chilled. Politicians who fear that a certain corporation can make or break their reelection chances may be cowed into silence about that corporation.
“On a variety of levels, unregulated corporate electioneering might diminish the ability of citizens to ‘hold officials accountable to the people,’ and disserve the goal of a public debate that is ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.’”
The For The People Act would have begun the process of dialing back dark money by requiring a modest level of transparency and beginning the process of funding federal elections.
It passed the House of Representatives last year but was blocked in the Senate by united GOP opposition and the “No” votes of Kirsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, both taking vast sums of money from corporate special interests and rightwing billionaires.
This bizarre notion that money is the same thing as speech is destroying our democracy in real time right in front of us.
Since the Citizens United decision in 2010, Congress has been gridlocked; whenever a consequential piece of legislation is considered that would help average Americans but may reduce corporate profits or increase taxes on billionaires it runs into united opposition from the entire GOP and a handful of on-the-take Democrats.
Free speech is essential to a functioning republican democracy. And money is not free speech. Ending this grotesque Court-invented doctrine of money-as-speech is the only way to seriously begin to restore democracy to America.
If we fail in this vital effort, the world will eventually sink into darkness. We’ll join ancient Greece and Rome in the dustbin of history, and take other democracies around the world with us: many are already imitating our Supreme Court’s doctrine, and its swinging their politics hard to the right.
If we succeed, on the other hand, America could again become a beacon of self-governance and liberty for every other nation on Earth.
The choice — and the work — is ours.