Rescuing Democracy from "Speech." (Corrosive Influence of Big Campaign Contributors)

By Kuttner, Robert | The American Prospect, January-February 1998 | Go to article overview

Rescuing Democracy from "Speech." (Corrosive Influence of Big Campaign Contributors)


Kuttner, Robert, The American Prospect


The several pillars of political democracy each seem inviolable first principles, but they exist in necessary tension with one another. Viewing any one principle in isolation, we too easily conclude that it is the indispensable element - the trump. For example, democracy entails both liberty and equality. But neither ideal can be taken to its logical extreme without wrecking the other, and wrecking democracy. Perfect equality requires dictatorship. Perfect liberty is anarchy.

As our cover suggests, one such tension operates between free elections and free speech. In their zeal to get money out of politics, reformers stand accused of menacing free speech and thus undermining democracy. But conversely, if money buys elections, democracy is also impaired. Democracy needs both things: free, vigorous debate; and elections relatively uncorrupted by the special power of money. Happily, as I will suggest in this essay, this seeming dilemma is largely a false dichotomy.

At our constitutional founding, America's framers were properly obsessed with the question of how to balance majority rule with the protection of minority rights; and how to balance effective governance with limited government. Both the structure of the original constitution and the subsequent Bill of Rights reflect these concerns.

There are similar democratic tensions between personal freedom and public order and between individual rights and public purposes. Whenever private income is taxed to buy collective goods, or private property is taken for public uses, the common good makes a claim on the individual sphere. Whenever police power is used to assure order, individual rights are at risk. Both the Congress and the courts endeavor to balance these objectives, each a kind of first principle but none a summun bonum. So democracy is an imperfect and ever-shifting balance between competing ideals.

These several democratic balancing acts are worth keeping in mind as we explore the subject of several articles in this issue - the particular tension between democratic elections and free speech. Each is a first principle of democracy: You cannot have true representative government without free expression, and you cannot have it if money trumps votes. The Supreme Court, in Buckley v. Valeo, allowed limits on contributions but not expenditures. But the Court's Jesuitical distinction has been overwhelmed by ever more baroque campaign maneuvers and the failure of Congress to act.

This dilemma, common to all democracies, presents itself with special force in the United States because of our cherished First Amendment. Yet among democratic nations, America's political debate is not uniquely robust - particularly given our preferred national mode of electoral dialogue, the paid television commercial. Several European nations with no First Amendment and tighter regulation of both the flows of money and the conventions of campaigning have less commercialism in politics, higher rates of voting turnout, and more vigorous public deliberation. But in our conception of liberal democracy, we Americans - especially we liberals - reserve a special place for free speech.

My own view is that the greater threat to American democracy today is the corrosive influence of big money in politics, not the erosion of free speech. Indeed, money warps the form and content of democratic conversation. It is worth pausing for a moment to disentangle the various reasons why this trend is ruinous for political democracy.

First, of course, democracy is based on one-citizen/one-vote. One-dollar/one-vote is the first principle of the marketplace. The necessary tension between democratic capitalism and republican government is another in our series of ongoing balancing acts.

In recent years, the cost of campaigning has escalated. The ability to raise money becomes the defining hurdle of who is a convincing candidate. Politicians who can raise more money get their message out more effectively. …

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