Searching for “rigged election” in Google News turns up “about 288,000 results.” Add “Trump” to the search and you get “about 342,000” hits. Enough already. The rhetoric is everywhere, and it’s misleading and dangerous.
Overlooked in all the rigged rhetoric is the use of the term by those who want to give government more power to control speech. Those opposed to truly free speech use this tactic on a regular basis. Issue One, a group supporting limits on political speech, claims, “Our politics is dominated by money, creating a rigged system where most Americans are shut out of the political process.” Every Voice, another group opposed to free speech, opines, “We know that the game is rigged against the majority of us.”
These groups and others argue that they are saving democracy by working to pass policies aimed at restoring public trust in government. But there is no evidence that such speech regulations do any good. If the system is really rigged, then how does giving government more control over its critics help?
The truth is, academic research demonstrates that existing campaign finance regulations do nothing to reduce perceptions of corruption or increase trust in government. More speech restrictions will equal more of the same.
Nor is there evidence that money “buys” electoral outcomes. Just ask Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton. Each vastly outspent Trump in the primary and the general elections. Indeed, pro-Clinton spending was more than double spending in support of Trump. But the fact that higher spending didn’t translate to a Clinton victory shouldn’t come as a surprise. The list of candidates who won the fundraising battle only to lose an election is long. It stretches from high-profile presidential campaigns to little-noticed Congressional races.
In other words, advocates of further regulating political speech are making demonstrably false claims that call into question the legitimacy of electoral outcomes.
When Donald Trump first claimed that the election was “rigged” as a candidate, critics were quick to suggest that making such a claim was a threat to democracy. Why? Because it called into question the legitimacy of our election results.
As president, Trump has continued to make similar claims. Most recently, he said that he would have won New Hampshire if not for widespread voter fraud in the state. And again, he has been charged with threatening democracy with false claims about the integrity of U.S. elections.
Trump’s critics are right to call him out for making such serious allegations without providing any legitimate evidence. But the evidence that money buys elections is just as lacking as the evidence of voter fraud in New Hampshire. Those same critics who call out Trump should also criticize the “reform” lobby with equal fervor.
Ironically, some of those critics are actually part of the “reform” lobby. And unfortunately, even if Trump does drop this claim, baseless “rigged” rhetoric is unlikely to come to an end any time soon.
This anti-speech coalition of nonprofits will continue to spend millions of dollars each year telling Americans that our political system is corrupt and undemocratic because other citizens are also spending money on speech. That is their right. But their rhetoric does as much as Trump’s to tear down faith in the integrity of our system of government.
Furthermore, adopting speech restrictive policies based on these activists’ claims would do more to damage our democracy than any false rhetoric itself ever could. A vibrant democracy requires that citizens be able to speak freely, particularly about political issues. And spending money on speech is essential for bringing attention to and gaining support for issues, especially those that are initially unpopular.
Many ideas that are mainstream today were once considered radical. Had people not had the ability to spend money promoting those ideas, our world may have turned out vastly different. Senator Eugene McCarthy’s ability to freely raise money from his supporters played a vital role in building political opposition to the Vietnam War. He surprised then-President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary — and ultimately forced LBJ out of the race.
Limits on political spending are limits on political speech. And limits on political speech are limits on democracy. If these groups really cared about protecting American democracy, they would stop attempting to delegitimize it in the name of further restricting First Amendment rights.
This post originally ran in The Hill on March 27th 2017.