I actually took a sigh of relief yesterday when the DISCLOSE Act failed to be passed in the Senate. This was one of many proposals to partially reverse the Supreme Court decision earlier this year in Citizens United v. FEC which opened the floodgates for direct corporate spending on electioneering. And, apparently corporations are already taking advantage of the decision. The bill would require corporate spending on ads to come along with disclosure of who funded the ad.
I’m wary of limitations on political speech, especially when the limitations are uneven. As the ACLU wrote:
The [bill] includes an amendment obligating many advocacy organizations that wish to speak out on candidates and, in certain situations, political issues, to release the identities of many of their donors, while allowing a few large mainstream organizations to preserve the privacy of their donors. The amendment exempts organizations that have over 500,000 members, are over ten years old, have a presence in all 50 states and whose revenue from corporations and unions is less than 15 percent. By exempting larger mainstream organizations from certain disclosure requirements, the bill inequitably suppresses only the speech of smaller, more controversial organizations and compromises the anonymity of small donors.
The discussion of the Citizens United decision and the DISCLOSE Act in the blogosphere has taken it for granted that money is bad for politics. Or, perhaps we should say monetary inequality is bad for politics. (And if that’s the problem, exactly what does DISCLOSE do to rectify that? I guess it makes big spenders think twice about spending money on politics because they will have to put their name behind it. But what if they are proud to put their name behind a candidate? What if it even becomes good publicity to put your name behind a candidate?) In any case, monetary inequality is only part of the picture. What’s missing from the discussion is looking at how the money buys influence.
Back in the 1970s, when IBM dominated the world of computers with their high-cost mainframes, entrepreneurs — later to start Apple — uprooted the link between money and access to computational power by reinventing the computer in creating the personal computer (democratizing computational power!). In the 1990s, the big institutional newspapers and the newly dominating cable news channels ruled the media scene, but in the early 2000s bloggers started to uproot the power of the “MSM” by decentralizing public discussion of news (and in some impressive cases even taking on the role of investigative journalists). In the late 2000s with the emergence of the Open Government Data movement world-wide, we’re seeing an attempt to empower citizens by providing them with access to government information that only interests with well-paid lobbyists could access before.
We’re not powerless when it comes to the link between money and influence. This leads us to an alternative approach to decoupling monetary inequality with political inequality. Rather than essentially reducing monetary inequality by force of law (by discouraging corporate spending), we should be looking at uprooting the link between money and influence.
Money buys influence through advertising, because the only way citizens learn about candidates is through advertising. What if we could undermine that pathway? What if there were other ways for citizens to learn about candidates where there was no pay-to-play? Entrepreneurs and civic hackers have done this type of thing before. Perhaps it’s time to focus our skills on this problem.