Corporate Speech in Black Robes

Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy continue to justify our worst fears.

Some of you will remember Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, singing “If I were a rich man” and saying “when you’re rich, they think you really know.” Tevye, of course, understood the fiction. But the five ideologues on the Supreme Court think corporations are the poor little orphans of American politics, shivering in the cold. To them, corporations have been robbed by a century of efforts to control corporate money and all will be right if we let these poor corporate outsiders back where they belong – running things.

There are some responsible arguments that well-meaning people have made in support of the decision, except that those responsible arguments run counter to what this judicial majority is about. This is a group of judges who have supported every prop for the politically powerful that have come before them on the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts – the statutory entrenchment of boss power over NY judgeships, the disenfranchisement of Indiana voters, the gerrymandering of Texas voters, let alone their attack on the Voting Rights Act. For these judges, this case is just another prop for the powerful.

Still, maybe the people can snatch victory from the jaws of the Court. Those who study election finance have been telling us for years that the best way to organize campaign finance is through public funding. Americans have been appropriately skeptical of politicians. Some of them are abominable. And every one of us, rich or poor, Republican or Democratic, have our candidates for abominable politicians. So we are very reluctant to support campaign finance. And of course those already in power are less than eager for reforms that could jeopardize their careers.

Perhaps the Supreme Court’s decision, to snatch the people’s remedy for improper campaign practices and put it out of our reach, will lead us all to understand the value of paying for the campaigns ourselves, through a system of public funding and related measures.

The basic point is that underfunded campaigns deprive us of the information we need to get a bead on whom to take seriously and whom to reward or punish. With public funding, candidates have less need to feel in debt to corporate dollars and their independently funded attack ads. In other words, the best remedy for political favor is to support real political independence. Candidates whose main task is to communicate with us, instead of corporate sponsors, are candidates who are much more likely to listen to us.

Unfortunately the presidential campaign fund is no longer adequate to fund a decent presidential campaign. And we have never provided for public funding for senate and congressional campaigns. Only a few states have done it at the state level. It’s about time.

If we wise up about public funding of election campaigns, maybe we’ll actually have reason to thank the black robed frauds in what should be the house of justice.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report on February 9, 2010.

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