Money ≠ Speech

Today in the United States, money is to politics what the Conemaugh River was to Johnstown. In short, there’s too much of it and we have no control over where it comes from and where it goes. So-called “dark money” flows through non-profits and other organizations and is spent to influence elections without us being able to know the source of these funds and what their agenda might be.

The Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission is a major landmark on this road into the abyss, but the trailhead was way back in 1976 with another decision, Buckley vs. Valeo. The ultimate upshot of both decisions is that showering the political system with untraceable cash, which is a polite way of saying bribery, has been placed on the same plane with political speech and enjoys the same First Amendment protections, something that should not be possible outside of a story by Lewis Carroll.

The equation of political spending with political speech is so completely contrary to basic reason that any college freshman with one class in logic under their belt should have been able to shred it with ease. Apparently, they couldn’t find a college freshman.

Shall we start with the basic differences between the two things in question: speech and money?

Speech, unlike money, contains ideas, or at least it has the ability to. That is its primary purpose, the conveyance of information from one brain into another. Of course, anyone who has listened to our current president speak or watched an hour of reality television (much the same thing, really) knows that speech can be completely devoid of substance or even contain a negative amount of thought. But just like mason jars don’t all contain jam, preserves, or moonshine, but they all can, all speech has the capacity to contain ideas, something that money cannot claim.

The only things money can contain are linen-based paper, ink, a security strip, and sometimes trace amounts of cocaine. Other than our reverence for Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, and soon Harriet Tubman, money expresses no ideas. And if money does not and cannot contain ideas, moving money from one party or another does not communicate a single idea.

The transfer of cash, whether for a purchase or as a political donation, is merely a transaction. When I spent $50 at an Apple Store recently, the only thought that my money communicated to them was my need to own an overpriced watch band. In the case of political donations (or spending on behalf of a candidate), the donor is also purchasing something, and that something is the undivided attention of politicians, usually at the expense of those without buckets of spare cash to shower on the political system, even though the politician was also elected to serve their interests as well. Anyone who is not part of this system should see this state of affairs as fundamentally un-American.

According to the theory of American democracy, if not the reality, the CEO of a corporation ought to have no more influence over our government than the person who comes in after hours to empty the wastebaskets and clean the floors. It doesn’t work that way, however, when you replace “one person, one vote” with “one dollar, one vote.”

Another way to look at money in politics is to see it as an amplifier, boosting only selected speech to top volume and drowning out the rest. Presently, the oligarchs of the donor class have giant stacks of Spinal Tap amps, all turned up to 11, while the rest of us stand on the shore, hands cupped over our mouths, trying to shout over a hurricane.

If the United States Constitution and the First Amendment really can be read in a way that equates monetary transactions with political speech, then the Founding Fathers fucked up, and the Constitution needs an Amendment to fix this oversight.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.