Stevens: Politics Shouldn’t be as Tough as Beanbag

 Yesterday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the "Millionaire’s Amendment" was a great victory for the First Amendment (you can read CCP’s amicus brief on the case here), strengthening earlier decisions by the court rejecting the notion that Congress can infringe on First Amendment rights in order to "equalize" speech by competing candidates.

Reading the dissent by Justice Stevens, however, should send a chill down the spine of anyone who values political speech free of government management. In his dissent, Stevens explicitly endorses the idea of limiting the quantity of speech in politics. Apparently, all of the ads filling the airwaves encouraging voters to support one candidate or oppose another, or care about this issue or that one, hurt the Justices preference for an "orderly debate," as he puts it.

"… the imposition of reasonable limitations would likely have the salutary effect of improving the quality of the exposition of ideas," Stevens writes. "After all, orderly debate is always more enlightening than a shouting match that awards points on the basis of decibels rather than reasons."

Making as strong a case as I have ever seen for term limiting members of the Supreme Court, Stevens goes on to explain that political campaigns should be conducted in a fashion similar to the oral arguments made before the court.

"Quantity limita­tions are commonplace in any number of other contexts in which high-value speech occurs. Litigants in this Court pressing issues of the utmost importance to the Nation are allowed only a fixed time for oral debate and a maximum number of pages for written argument. As listeners and as readers, judges need time to reflect on the merits of an issue; repetitious arguments are disfavored and are usu­ally especially unpersuasive… It seems to me that Congress is entitled to make the judgment that voters deserve the same courtesy and the same opportunity to reflect as judges; flooding the airwaves with slogans and sound-bites may well do more to obscure the issues than to enlighten listeners…"

"Oh yes, and Emmanuel Goldstein is a traitor to the people of Oceania."

Ok, so that last line wasn’t part of Stevens’ dissent, but it would seem an appropriate way to conclude his missive.

While I’m no fan of the "slogans and soundbites" that make up too much of our modern campaigns (witness the absurdities being traded by Senators McCain and Obama over the issue of who has more lobbyists in their campaign or who is more committed to campaign finance "reform"), the fact is that most Americans do not have the time to become well-informed on the vast number of issues our elected officials must deal with. The various "slogans" and "soundbites" do in fact convey important information to citizens who already have positions on issues. Candidate A calls herself "pro-life" while candidate B says he is "pro-choice" – for those Americans with strong feelings on the subject, these "slogans" provide valuable information about which candidate best shares their values and priorities.

And while Justice Stevens and his colleagues have the full-time job of listening to competing arguments and reading extensive briefs, most Americans must spend the bulk of their time living their lives – going to work, raising their families, housecleaning, attending worship, and the countless other things that consume everyday life. Poring through thousands of pages of research and listening to scores of 1-hour debates by extremely knowledgeable individuals each year may be the norm for Justice Stevens, but not for the rest of us.

Several years back, I worked on a campaign where the candidate was fond of saying "Politics isn’t beanbag" when discussing the normal rough-and-tumble of political campaigns. It occurs to me, after reading Justice Stevens’ dissent, that even something as competitive as beanbag might be to strenuous compared to the gentle Justice’s idealized view of politics.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.