(Centennial Fellow) Back around 1600, a Scottish physician made so bold as to write that the king of England and Anglican church officials were answerable to a higher power. His phraseology was not kind, and the Court of Star Chamber ordered his ears cut off.
Even in the United States, there have always been those who want to shut you up one way or the other, the tradition stretching from the Alien and Sedition Acts of the John Adams administration to the campaign finance laws of today.
There’s always an excuse — maybe that the king has the divine right to outvote God and that arguments to the contrary thwart earthly order. Journalist Elizabeth Drew, in raging against super PACs, has her reasons, too, namely that the controls she favors are crucial to democratic elections, a contradiction holding hands with several others in an article in The New York Review of Books.
The piece — referred to here because it is similar to pieces by other progressive journalists — defines super PACs concisely and well as “political action committees that collect and spend unlimited corporate or individual contributions to pay for ads that are explicitly for a specified candidate.”
The groups, which are not supposed to communicate with candidates, have been spending millions this election year, much of it on negative and sometimes misleading TV spots.
Campaign finance laws once prohibited such committees, even to the extent that a nonprofit group was told it could not show a film making censorious observations about Hillary Clinton. That was so clearly a violation of constitutional rights that the Supreme Court said oh, yes it can, opening the door to a further lower court ruling allowing unrestricted super PAC spending, which, according to Drew, contorts elections, putting them in the hands of the rich.
Sure, some super PAC ads may influence voters, not least of all when they are on target, but to think they can trick most of the voters most of the time requires you to think the general populace is a brick short of a load. Is that what Drew means by democracy — consent of the stupid? In fact, she herself writes that the public has been outraged by some of them, and there is scads of evidence that candidates who do the most spending also do quite a bit of losing.
Meanwhile, free speech has boundless good effects, and no matter what some on the left say (if not Drew), regulating the money spent on discourse is regulating discourse. Insist on the contrary and you are saying it would be no violation of the First Amendment for the government to instruct the New York Review of Books on how much, if any, of its revenue it can spend on editorial product, including what it pays Drew.
Drew’s solution to all this unabashed liberty is more government financing of campaigns, which is to say, government by consent of government. That’s especially the case when you figure incumbents writing the new laws are never going to give challengers an even break, although now we come to another Drew fear: state laws requiring photo IDs to vote.
I guess we are back to the people-are-stupid thesis, because Drew sees no way minorities, the elderly and students will be able to comply, even though the states turning this direction are making it easier than a kindergarten class to get the IDs. What is Drew to make of the black vote in Georgia increasing after ID laws went into effect? A bipartisan Carter-era commission said such laws would fortify faith in the system, encouraging participation. Just maybe that group was right.
The other pretense is that voter fraud is not a U.S. problem or has been or will be, which would be very, very nice if it were true, but it isn’t.
Today’s autocrats may be more civilized than the types who used to cut off ears, but I’d like them to become more civilized still, supporting honesty and free speech in elections.