Did Free Speech Destroy American Democracy?

March 19, 2018   •  By Joe Albanese   •    •  ,

Would giving up our constitutional rights make our country more democratic? Would regulating speech make government more accountable to the people? Shockingly, some answer these questions with “yes.”

Figures ranging from Harvard academic Lawrence Lessig to former president Jimmy Carter have said America is no longer a democratic republic. The latest entrant to this ritual is another Harvard professor, Yascha Mounk, who repeats these claims in the Atlantic. These men push a similar formula for their grievances about our system: restrict political spending, then watch democracy flourish. In reality, political spending is an essential expression of free speech that brings new voices into politics and makes our republic more vibrant.

Mounk strangely attributes this “democratic deficit” to one main cause: corporations. He recounts an alternative history whereby businesses lacked influence in politics for much of the 20th century – an assertion that may surprise those who know about the political battles over labor laws and health policy. This all supposedly changed in the 1970s, when business increased its political footprint, leading to an influx of campaign spending. (In fact, the 1970s is when federal regulation of campaign finance began to significantly increase.)

Besides being ahistorical, this line of thinking has dangerous implications that we’ve seen before. Demonizing political spending justifies policies aimed at deterring the rich in theory but that actually burden ordinary citizens. For every wealthy donor attacked on the floor of the U.S. Senate, there are many other average Americans harassed because the law requires that their political giving be put online. For every program sending tax dollars to politicians to supposedly reduce the sway of big donors, there is an increased chance that corrupt candidates will find new ways to cheat the system. Worse yet, efforts to deter political participation leave more power for abuse by government agencies – witness IRS abuses against Tea Party groups or pre-dawn police raids over alleged “coordination” between candidates and advocacy groups in Wisconsin.

Mounk calls for more campaign finance restrictions at several points without noting specifics. (Indeed, apart from one widely criticized study, he does not cite empirical evidence for his claims about money in politics at all.) But the policies he does mention suggest a draconian approach to cracking down on First Amendment rights.

He recalls favorably how states like Georgia and California literally criminalized the practice of lobbying – better known in the Constitution as “the freedom … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” He also advocates for overturning Citizens United – a case where the government tried to ban a movie that criticized then-senator Hillary Clinton when she was running for president, simply because it was made by a corporation. Imagine paying a fine or facing jail time for daring to interact with other voters or elected officials in the “wrong” way or at the “wrong” time.

The call for more speech laws also contradicts Mounk’s own critiques. He warns how federal agencies like the FCC and SEC have “supplanted” the job of lawmaking. Yet the policies he mentions would only give more power to those agencies and others, like the FEC and the IRS. That does not make America more democratic, but more bureaucratic.

What would make America more democratic would be enabling more political speech and participation. The recent decline in campaign finance restrictions has coincided with the breakdown of traditional party elites. The result is a rise in independent speech and more people running for office. It is hard to argue in the era of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders that elites have tightened their grasp on our elections.

It’s true that Americans have an enduring skepticism of large, monopolistic institutions – both private and public. If the goal is to decentralize power, the answer is surely not to allow opaque federal agencies to ban certain types of speech or enable politically motivated harassment of private citizens. Engaging in public debate is how free speech should work in a democracy. In a republic, that right cannot be taken away.

This post originally ran in the American Thinker on March 17th 2018.

Joe Albanese

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