October 1, 2004

Real Campaign Finance Reform: Only Solution for Fair US Elections

By In Essays

Probably the second worst Supreme Court decision in the last 30 years– we all know the worst– was the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision that equated freedom of speech with paid political advertising.

At the time, the Supreme Court was not as conservative as it is today; nevertheless, it rendered a judgment that sanctified the process for political candidates to package and sell themselves to the American public like Coca Cola or Pepsodent toothpaste– a great victory for Big Business in the Land of the Free and a historic reminder of how easily the Supreme Court could be bought by corporate interests to undermine the Constitution and the democratic process.

The judges in favor of the decision argued that paid political advertising was protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution that guaranteed freedom of speech. In other words, staging, shooting, and paying for an ad about a political candidate on television or radio, or in newspapers and magazines, was somehow equivalent to American citizens having the freedom to express their political or religious views in a public forum without getting persecuted or thrown into jail.

If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, not only would he be appalled by the 1976 decision, but he would be the first to point out how the decision, in effect, laid the groundwork for our election process to be usurped by special interest groups and corporate money, rendering the process not only antithetical to free speech, but also making it nearly impossible for Third Party candidates to run successfully for public office.

If you are not familiar with the Buckley v. Valeo decision, or have not read the numerous articles and essays about it, don’t feel left out. The mainstream media never mention it, other than to state– as if it’s a priori knowledge– that paid political advertising is equivalent to free speech and protected by the Constitution.

Naturally they would say that, since the five megacorporations that own a majority of the mass media in the country today, including all the major television networks and cable stations, and most of the major newspapers and magazines, have reaped billions of dollars of profits in the last few decades from paid political advertising. Which is also why they have no qualms about running political ads they know are either false or deceptive, like the Swift Boat ads used against John Kerry.

God forbid they should apply some ethical standards and say, “Now hold on, fellas! We can’t run ads that are deliberately false or misleading– no matter how much money is involved. After all, we have an obligation to the American people to present the truth.”

Fat chance! Instead they hide behind the corporate rubric so nicely formulated during the Reagan years: Corporations are in business to make money– fuck ethics and social responsibility!

In 2002 the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law made an effort to at least take “soft money” away from political parties and make the election process fairer, but unfortunately, it left a loophole large enough for a big rig truck to drive through by allowing 527 groups (like the Swift Boat Boys or Moveon.org) to spend as much soft money as they want on advertising for their favorite politicians.

Which proves that when it comes to campaign finance reform, trimming around the edges or advocating incrementalism doesn’t work, and the only way to make the election process truly fair and democratic is to take money out of the system altogether. How can this be done?

Three easy steps: 1) Support an amendment to the Constitution to repeal the Buckley v. Valeo decision. 2) Outlaw all paid political advertising in any election– from city to state to federal. 3) Give every serious candidate for office the same amount of free public airtime and news media coverage.

In addition, the election process should be held over an eight-week period, and every candidate should be compelled to answer real questions by real citizens and real reporters in real public forums– not the phony public forums staged by politicians who give canned answers to their carefully screened sycophantic constituents or corporate-controlled media whores posing as legitimate journalists.

Then we would actually have free and fair elections based on ideas and the needs of individual citizens, not a two-party dominated grand Guignol based on corporate money, public relations, and attack ads. But don’t expect this to happen any time soon. The Democrats and Republicans are not going to propose it; neither will the mainstream media nor the corporate lobbyists who contribute to political campaigns.

Ralph Nader and the Green Party have been doing everything in their power for years to bring this to the American public’s attention. But you know how most Americans are. They don’t trust Third Party candidates, nor take the time to research public issues, nor listen to alternative political viewpoints.

As a result, real campaign finance reform will remain a non-issue for the foreseeable future, the election process will continue to be a sucker’s game where the interests of average Americans are ignored, and our political system will continue to be controlled by corporate lobbyists and special interest groups who hide behind the First Amendment as they skulk through the graveyard of broken dreams and discarded democratic ideals, laughing all the way.

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