Free Speech Doesn’t “Drown Out” Other Voices

This week, Katrina vanden Heuvel penned an op-ed in The Washington Post alleging that “big and dark money” are “drown[ing] out” the voices of ordinary Americans. The core gripe that motivates vanden Heuvel’s argument is that progressives and Democrats face an uphill battle in the race for campaign funding, despite being favored in generic ballot polling. This logic does not bear out, nor does it even maintain an internal consistency.

First, Democrats seem to be doing just fine, despite what the selective reading of campaign finance metrics may tell you. The very title of the article partially quotes Democrat Conor Lamb, who won his U.S. House race in a Republican-friendly Pennsylvania district while forgoing donations from certain PACs. Of course, he had little trouble raising money from other sources – the “no corporate PAC” pledge Lamb agreed to is a political stunt that does not meaningfully hinder campaign fundraising. The Post column cites other examples of underdog Democrats who seem to be doing just fine in the fundraising department. Indeed, the 2018 election cycle has seen a record number of Democratic candidates, not to mention a historic level of women running for office.

While vanden Heuvel decries the “special-interest” money “working against” progressives, the fact is that any mainstream political coalition will have an easy time raising money from “their” special interests. Progressives in particular can count on consistent support from labor unions, environmental groups, civil rights organizations, and other constituencies. Allowing more freedom in political spending enables like-minded individuals to band together to make their voice heard, even if they face well-funded opponents. And contra claims about the “exorbitant cost” of winning a U.S. House or Senate seat, that amount is roughly unchanged since 2006. That’s before court decisions like Citizens United were supposed to open the floodgates in elections everywhere.

Besides being wrong on these facts, the overall case against so-called “dark money” is unconvincing. Such spending is just a fraction of all independent spending and a consistently small portion of political spending in general. Could it be that vanden Heuvel believes “dark money” to be especially nefarious because of where it comes from? This theory is undermined by the fact that she condemns traditional PACs too – which are subject to contribution limits, disclosure requirements, and a whole host of complex regulations. It seems that her main gripe is where the money is going, not how it is spent or how much of it is spent.

Interestingly, the piece never goes into detail when explaining how exactly “big money” manages to “drown out” others’ voices. It cites examples of Republicans outraising Democrats, but again, Democrats are doing just fine. Even in cases where the GOP is better-funded, progressives ought to take solace in the fact that funding alone does not dictate the outcomes of elections. Does the political spending of some come at the expense of others, by taking up airtime? That is less true than ever. Even if some groups have more resources on hand than others, there are more and cheaper ways of reaching out to the broader public than ever before. What truly matters is finding the most compelling message and the most effective means of delivering it. Money alone doesn’t do the trick, as Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush can attest to. People still vote however they want.

The clichéd complaint that political spending “drowns out” other voices is both wrong and detrimental to our Constitution. The column does not defend that argument because it is nothing more than a platitude – but that doesn’t make it harmless. If we view speech as a zero-sum game, then there is nothing to stop the government from placing concrete limits on all types of speech, under the flawed theory that such regulations actually protect free speech rights for others. In short, the notion that there can be too much speech is completely antithetical to the First Amendment and its role in creating an open marketplace of ideas. It is an idea that should be vigorously challenged.

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