Lawrence Lessig is right to question Sen. Bernie Sanders about his statements regarding the reality of amending the United States Constitution.
I bet you’ve heard the slogan, “Let’s overturn Citizens United!” This is telling people we need a constitutional amendment, or appoint new justices, who will overrule 2010’s Citizens United v. F.E.C. ruling.
Citizens United has become a symbol, to many, of an exclusive federal government that puts a premium on political contributions. I agree that this is the state of the current United States political situation. However, calling for repealing a 2010 ruling is more of a potent rhetorical tool than a realistic — or even honest — solution to fixing an American democracy out-of-whack.
I have discussed the ruling with people who are emotional about it. Before I tread too deep into a conversation, I always ask the question, “Have you read it?” Most have not. This is understandable. A person with the Open Source Party recently said this about how people get their political information,
“One of the jobs of a political party is to provide a high return on attention by being a curator of ideas, a distiller of information, a vetter of facts/sources, and by being a bit smarter and faster than the average member who doesn’t have the time, money, or attention to research issues in depth.”
They’re right, however, we don’t have parties as much as we have candidate-based political movements. There are groups within the two major parties in the United States; and one inside the Democratic Party is #FeelTheBern. A cornerstone of Sanders’ campaign is his position on overturning Citizens United. If his rallies are like rock concerts, this line is received like one of his greatest hits.
His website says, “In a 5–4 decision in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for corporations and the wealthy to spend unlimited and undisclosed money to buy our elected officials.”
The statement regarding “undisclosed money” is simply not true. The 2010 ruling was good for transparency in elections. To blame the appalling lack of disclosure in federal elections on SCOTUS denies how good the Court has been on transparency. It also obscures the root of the problem.
The GOP can pass comprehensive disclosure rules tomorrow, however, they jealously clutch current loopholes that create the smokescreens their patrons hide behind. We need to be hitting ruling Republicans on blocking transparency laws. To Sen. Sanders’ credit, he supports legislation such as the Disclose Act, which increases transparency in elections.
Second, while spending limits can sound good, the reality is that they tend to bump up against the right of freedom of speech. The group Citizens United wanted to show a documentary on Pay-Per-View television and federal election law prohibited them from doing so. The laws that Citizens United overturned were passed by Congress before popular media such as YouTube took off.
Citizens United stated the Constitution does not discriminate against certain speakers. I believe a group like a union ought to be able to make a documentary about a candidate’s labor relations — and this statement should be allowed to stream on the internet. The Court was explicit regarding the convergence of traditional television and rapidly unfolding media technology. The ruling also mentioned how blogs and other web-based tools are important for expression.
Within the right of free speech, how is Pay-Per-View television any different from online content delivery? The ruling overturned prohibitions on electioneering during defined periods preceding an election. Citizens United basically knocked down censorship of the internet.
Buying Elected Officials?
Sanders’ campaign is raising tens of millions of dollars. His message is resonating with a lot of people. His crowd-sourced funding is the expression of the needs and values of his supporters. In other words — money is speech! The technological revolution is rapidly changing the political playing field where groups of people can combine their finances as a way to counter the concentration of money by a few individuals. I think this is an exciting development!
In light of this potential, do we really want to limit political information by repealing a court ruling that was good for transparency and internet freedom? And do we want to do this based on incendiary political rhetoric?
Indeed, politicians fanning the flames of discontent might be loath to turn off the tap of a lucrative rhetorical tool. Nevertheless, there are months before any party nominations are conducted. There is time for voters to make informed choices.
Lawrence Lessig has a good plan to break down barriers US House members have built to protect themselves. His plan to end gerrymandering and widen the franchise of voting is an honest and rational way to fix our broken political system.
Lessig is also right to call Sen. Sanders out on his sensational rhetoric. But with the #FeelTheBern bandwagon rolling, are people willing to listen?