According to a Center for Public Integrity analysis super PACS have already spent $30 million in the states where the 2012 primaries have been held. Most of this comes from a handful of very wealthy people who hope that their “speech” will drown yours out.
In a recent presentation before the South Carolina Bar last Saturday, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cavalierly dismissed those who have criticized the 5-4 decision in the Citizens United case which for all intents and purposes called money the equivalent of speech, thus allowing unlimited corporate funding of political ads. His logic is simple but somewhat naive and appeals to the popular concept of individual liberty – change the channel or turn off the TV. “I don’t care who is doing the speech – the more the merrier,” Scalia said. “People are not stupid. If they don’t like it, they’ll shut it off.”
The presumption here is that “people are not stupid” and will essentially see through any ad that is less than factual or not to their liking. We know that a lot of people who do see these ads are indeed not stupid and will reflexively dismiss those ads that don’t appeal to their particular political orientations. Clearly there will be those who will filter out any message that doesn’t speak to a preferred script as we witnessed in one South Carolina GOP primary debate where audience members applauded and shouted down their disapproval of a values question aimed at Newt Gingrich’s infidelities in marriage. The same mindset that went after Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair less than two decades ago was now chastising the debate moderator for raising it with one of their own.
But that’s not really who these ads are aimed at. Sure, they serve as a source to fire up the fringe elements and the Party’s base. Their primary target however are the less sophisticated, poorly informed voters who are not locked into the politics of our day. They are presented with all the advanced technological special effects to appeal to some emotional element that is sure to persuade an otherwise naive voter to see an issue from one particular side.
Surely there’s value from an onslaught of political ads that accurately state the positions a candidate stands for. Such positive ads would give poorly informed voters something to assess about the man or woman running for office though there would be no guarantee that once in office an elected official would would play out those positions. But that’s the political environment we live in and the election process does give the candidate the benefit of the doubt while giving voters the power to vote them out later for failure to live up to expectations.
The problem however is that the ads in recent campaigns are mostly attack ads aimed at a political adversary. Rather than put their own positions out there that can be closely scrutinized by an astute electorate and critiqued over the airwaves and internet blogs, the public is instead seeing ads that disfigure an adversary right before their very eyes Voters are not being allowed to weigh the pros and cons of a candidate but instead are being manipulated into voting for his opponent by default.
He who has the most money to drown out the other’s counter-ads to offset this image is likely to win in a social culture that has short attention spans and where people know more about their favorite sporting event than they do about the political policies on the local, state and national level that determine whether their kids’ school will be adequately funded each year or that coal-fired power plant is going to get another pass on reducing their toxic emissions our kids breathe everyday. Welcome to Antonin Scalia’s view of democracy.
The expression attributed to Voltaire that says one may not agree with what another says but will defend to the death the right to say it is incorporated into our values and our founding documents. For this, Scalia is correct in his thinking. But these are not the days that this “original intent” justice pines for where any man could stand upon his soap box on any street corner and express his views while challenging views were being equally aired on the other corner.
The corner soap box has been replaced by a medium that influences millions of people in 30-second spots. Wealthy interests can crowd out the corners of free speech in this new medium and thus deprive citizens of a fair and balanced hearing to help them make sound decisions that affect them and future generations. If the overwhelming content heard by the average voter is a distortion of the truth then honest choices are denied. Repeated often enough a lie becomes the new reality and that new reality will start paying obeisance to them that brought them to the dance.
Where we once relied on an objective free press to expose political deception we are now presented with formats on corporate-owned TV and radio that gives equal weight to both the unfounded charge and the facts. The naive and unsophisticated voter is now led to believe that a baseless charge is on the same footing as factual data. Once the lie or distortion is out there, time, energy and money must now be spent to dismiss it. If the truth isn’t backed up by enough monetary support to get its message out, unlike the soap box debaters of a bygone era, that message simply won’t get the attention it deserves. So be it says justice Scalia because right now the money is in that political arena that he palys ball in.
Justice Stephen Breyer, in that same presentation before the South Carolina Bar that Scalia made his comments at pointed out that by nature, when a decision isn’t unanimous, “somebody is making a mistake”. The notion that people are not stupid is a mistaken concept when it relates to politics and religion – social constructs that rely too often on gut feelings and personal intuition rather than studied analysis and thoughtful reflection.
The biblical tale where the apostle Thomas needs to touch “the risen Jesus” before he can fully believe speaks to that human concern of being deceived by smoke and mirror presentations and thus are less likely to accept an image of something unless they can lay their hands all over it. This Citizens United decision and the flippant attitude of Justice Scalia makes it more difficult for many of us to fully grasp the rapid fire messages that are now part of the political process in this country. Messages designed only to effect the voting behavior of targeted crowds rather truly inform and give a full and accurate accounting. And let there be no doubt – both sides will employ this tactic and it will be those who have the most money that will most likely win. The general public will be the losers.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” - Voltaire