Redefining what free speech is

While I make no bones about being lifelong Democrat, I’d like to think I don’t embrace everything just because it’s got donkey on it. Of course, I tend to go that way more than the other, but I hope I’m at least a little dogmatically ecumenical. In that spirit, I urge all Americans to give Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s proposed campaign finance Constitutional amendment a chance to win their favor.

As another brief point of context, the Constitution is something that while designed to evolve, shouldn’t be tinkered with more than absolutely necessary. Given the corrupting influence of money in politics, it is absolutely necessary.

If adopted, the resolution would let Congress regulate the way money is raised and spent in federal campaigns, and let states do the same in statewide campaigns. It would also let Congress regulate spending on political action committees (PACs).

While Reid likes to beat up on the infamous Koch brothers — an effort I wholeheartedly support — the Democrats are just as bad. Sen. John McCain called Reid a hypocrite, noting the Democrats own sycophantic leeching. McCain is correct in his basic premise. Republicans and Democrats alike, are fully awash in special interest, PACs and other lobbyists’ money. This money buys access. This money buys policy. This money undermines democracy.

Reid has also criticized the Supreme Court’s finding that campaign spending is equivalent to free speech, and therefore is not something the government can regulate. Reid said if that’s true, that’s the same as saying poor people have less speech than the rich.

“If this unprecedented spending is free speech, where does that leave our middle-class constituents, the poor? It leaves them out in the cold. There should be no million-dollar entry fee to participation in our democracy,” Reid observed.

As it stands, that’s exactly what’s in place. To paraphrase carnival signs “you must be this wealthy to participate.” While it took our government nearly two centuries to get the issues of direct election and full franchise sorted out, the march to commoditize democracy has been a very short and steep descent. The ideal of one man, one vote has been fully subordinated to one billionaire, all the votes that matter.

Writing for the Washington Post, Paul Waldman’s take on the matter is among the best I’ve seen. “In most other democracies, they tolerate some limits on political speech to ensure the cleanest campaigns possible; here in America, we tolerate abysmal campaigns in order to ensure the maximum freedom for political speech.”

The sad thing is corporations are not people. They should not be treated as such. Similarly, the executives who run the largest corporations are accorded a kind of supranational status. If this weren’t true, a lot more oil company executives and bankers would have gone to prison in the last decade.

All of this stems from a corruption of the putatively solid ideal of running government like a business. What people miss is that businesses and governments have two different goals. Businesses exist to make profits. Governments exist to deliver services.

But people like catchy, if overly simplistic, little catch phrases. Running a government efficiently, effectively and fairly so that most people realize the most benefit is full of nooks and crannies. Running gub’ment like a business sounds decisive and macho.

It was, therefore, all too easy to take this complex idea and pervert it into a profit-driven instead of a services-driven enterprise. Because profit motives are amenable to business models, corporations have become people; and real people have become irrelevant.

Reid’s amendment probably has the proverbial snowball’s chance. Even so, we should support it. America is the land of underdog successes. This uphill climb is too important to abandon.

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Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at