One of the biggest political issues of the year is the role and use of money as speech. Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision equating monetary expenditure with speech, the flow of money into politics has only accelerated. To be sure, the legal legitimacy of the idea of corporate personhood and the extension of individual rights to organizations laid the foundation for the fullest expression of this decision. However, even without that change equating money and speech has profound implications.
Making matters worse, the argument of economist Thomas Piketty that generally the rate of return on capital exceeds the growth of the economy in capitalist societies has gained critical traction. In essence, investment income grows faster than the income from work which in turn enables the wealthy to gain wealth faster because they can invest more. This is a big problem. Economists and sociologists have known for a long time that high levels of wealth disparity predispose societies to instability. Combined with the slow recovery of the US economy following the financial meltdown, wealth inequality has become a hot button issue. Add to all this the recent leaks of client data from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonsecaregarding their business of setting up anonymous offshore shell companies and it’s easy to see how the public is primed to skeptically eye the conduct of the wealthy and the role of money in politics.
Despite that skepticism however, the effects of an influx of money into politics is anything but conclusive. The rise of super PACs using dark money and conferring anonymity onto their donors has on the Republican side contributed not to election success but to an increase in the amount of noise. Well-funded candidates have withdrawn from the race after failing at the polls leaving self-funding Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich. Among the Democratic candidates, Sanders’s refusal to use a super PAC has become a campaign badge of honor for his populist brand.
At the same time, a variety of organizations and corporations are exercising their free speech and their bank accounts to shun states choosing to pass a variety of religious freedom laws,LGBT regulations, and gender identity measures. This has the effect of dividing social conservatives who generally support these laws and the business community which is interested in economic growth and job creation. In many cases, state governors are struggling to cope with the bad publicity and the anticipated cost of their legal stand while decrying these organizations for their choice. Supporters of such laws complain about the undemocratic influence being wielded by rich and powerful companies.
As a society we have decided that money is speech and that that right should be extended not just to individuals but groups of individuals. However we are still wrestling with the idea of its effects on our country and the speech power disparity between the wealthy and the poor. Redressing that inequality and hearing the voices of those with and without money would go a long way towards healing some of the societal divides made apparent during this election season.
Originally published at gildshire.com.