First, I have to note that today being April 2, I am celebrating the 15th and 11th anniversaries, respectively, of my first and second heart attacks. It being only about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, however, technically I really should wait until after midnight before I get too sassy about it.
Thursday April 3, 8:03 a.m. Yup, still here.
If, as the Supreme Court determined this week, giving away money is the same as free speech under the First Amendment, how come one never sees rich people exercising that freedom down in the park, on the sidewalk, at concerts, high school swim meets or frankly on my street? Seriously, I’ve never seen such a thing, although I have seen regular people declaiming, proclaiming, exclaiming, singing, chanting, miming, drumming and generally speechifying somewhere just about every day of my life in just about every city, town and other country I’ve been in.
I saw a fellow pretending to be a bush and jumping out at unsuspecting pedestrians down on Fisherman’s Wharf a few years ago. He just kind of growled the way a bush would, but surely he was exercising some kind of freedom. But I’ve never seen a rich person simply giving away money on the street. Occasionally you hear about someone doing it — though usually not an actual rich person on a crusade to exercise his or her Constitutional rights. Whoever it is, it tends to make the news.
I even knew a guy, a family friend in Florida, who had more money than Midas, so they said, and by being at his house a time or two, I believed it. Ol’ Fred started giving away hundred-dollar bills on a New York street corner one day back in the late 1960s, but they boobyhatched him pretty quick, as I recall.
Now, any person can give a maximum of $5,200 to any and every candidate during every election cycle from now till eternity or till the ruling gets overturned, whichever comes later. As a First Amendment right, the court said the law can’t set an arbitrary limit on how much one individual can donate to political candidates in the aggregate. Before this week, it was something like $132,000 per election cycle. No doubt that was in the ball park for folks like you and me, but now the really fat cats can give bazillions or at least $5,200 times every candidate in every election in every election cycle everywhere in the country. Who can compete with that? And what can that fat cat get for his bazillions? I shudder to imagine.
When the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are, in effect, people and have the same First Amendment right to express themselves by writing unlimited checks to political parties, I was a bit dismayed. It just didn’t seem right somehow. I understand the reasoning. I get it. But there’s something about the practice of it that makes my skin crawl.
Fifty years ago, 100 years ago, the same fat cats were buying influence in similar ways, but it would take three months for the public to know about it, after each candidate filed his campaign ledger. Which might be news in his hometown of Watertown or Hoboken, wherever Hoboken is. But we wouldn’t have known about it out here in the wild west and probably wouldn’t have cared much either.
Today, however, the money goes a different way. It goes into television ads and infomercials and faux documentaries that are seen by most, if not all, 317 million people in the country. And if the lie is big enough and told often enough, the people will believe it, as the saying goes. And it doesn’t even have to be a lie. It might be the stone truth from a certain perspective or told a certain way or edited to slant a certain way, but because of how we get most of our information, and because of how we deal with it, often “we’re only a pawn their game,” as Bob Dylan reminded us long ago.
Unfortunately, there’s a rub in all of this for me. My “strict constructionist” self actually believes that anyone with a buck has the right to give it to anyone he or she wants to say anything that person wants at any time and in any circumstance he or she wants. If every American has the right to free speech, then what’s wrong with somebody else paying him or her to say it, directly or indirectly? If I have bazillion bucks and I want to give it, however many times $5,200 goes into a bazillion, to that many individuals running for office in a primary and then a general election, why shouldn’t I be able to? They’re the ones exercising their free speech, and I’m exercising my rights to help them do it.
I get that too. And the same strict constructionist in me agrees. The problem is that the playing field isn’t level. It never has been, of course, since the dawn of time. But after a couple of hundred years of the United States of America, we’ve believed and been led to believe that, contrary to all history, our playing field somehow really was level. It never was true. It isn’t true now, and we just have to work harder to make it so.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.