By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
About 70 people turned out for a political demonstration on the State Capitol steps Tuesday – a fraction of the number that would have appeared if the subject were a controversial social issue, but I’ve seen plenty of smaller crowds there.
The issue was campaign finance reform. A coalition of groups were calling attention to their coming effort to gather signatures for a ballot initiative serving two purposes. First, it would make Arkansas the 17th state to call on Congress to advance a constitutional amendment allowing it and the states to regulate campaign funding. That’s just a request. Second, it would require independent political groups in Arkansas to disclose their donors. That would be the law.
Among the speakers was Rhana Bazzini, an 81-year-old Floridian who previously had marched from Sarasota to Tallahassee to protest current campaign finance laws. Bazzini pointed out, correctly, that every issue – education, health care, the national debt – is connected to how we elect our public officials.
And how we elect our public officials is through legalized bribery. I mean, let’s call it what it is. Serious candidates ask donors for money; unless they are super-wealthy, they have no choice. Groups who want something from the government give candidates money, which buys access, sympathy and loyalty. The more they give, the more access, sympathy and loyalty they receive. You know that version of the Golden Rule that says, “He who has the gold makes the rules”? That’s a fundamental part of American democracy.
This has always been the case, of course, but the dots between money and politics are becoming ever more connected. In America, money is speech and corporations are people, and under the 2010 Citizens United ruling, corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts on campaigns.
The result of that ruling has been the creation of independent groups spending enormous amounts to spread half-truths and slander political candidates while hiding under the cloak of anonymity. A single donor, or a small group of them, essentially can buy their own candidates in legally approved secrecy. Because more money is going into judicial races, justice increasingly is for sale.
I am not sure if there are easy answers for this. Money tends to find its way to power like water finds its way to the bottom of a hill, no matter what laws are passed. Also, I can see the argument that spending money to advance a political idea is a form of political speech, as well as a property right.
The obvious problem with that last argument is that more money equals more speech, which, after all, is supposed to be “free.” We know this current system is having a corrosive, corrupting influence on our politics. It’s creating a class of ultra-wealthy political sugar daddies. It’s accelerating the transfer of wealth from middle class taxpayers to the one percent. (Remember the bank bailout?)
It’s also affecting our daily lives. According to the Declaration of Independence, one of the reasons the colonists broke away from Great Britain was to better enable the pursuit of happiness. The constant barrage of negative political ads isn’t making anyone happy except those who get paid to produce them.
What do you think? Should there be limits to the amounts that donors can give to candidates and/or independent political groups? Should campaigns be publicly financed, so that more candidates could run for office without having to rely on these legalized bribes? Or would that just open up new cans of worms?
At the very least, disclosure of donors to independent political groups ought to be required. If people are able to spend millions of dollars to elect a candidate, at least the rest of should know about it. That’s the law these groups want in Arkansas, and they probably are going to have to pass it through a ballot initiative. This past session, Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, tried unsuccessfully to pass a disclosure law through the Legislature, and it didn’t even advance past a House committee.
“Speaking” is by definition a public activity, so there should be no expectation of anonymity when doing so. If people want to spend their millions to shout from the hilltop, they can’t expect to do so from inside a cave. So when the canvassers ask for my signature to place this measure on next year’s ballot, I’ll enthusiastically write my name – in person and in public.