The rage directed at the U.S. Supreme Court in the last 24 hours is instructive. From the White House to the editorial pages of most of the mainstream media, Democrats and liberals have depicted the court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission as a lamentable victory for the wealthy few that contribute to Republican and conservative causes at the expense of democracy. To listen to them, the court’s decision to remove the cap on how much money individuals could give to political parties, PACs, and candidates will create a plutocracy. To them, it seems obvious that the only way to make the system fair is to make it hard for citizens, whether as individuals or as a part of group, to make their voices heard in the public square.
Yet when faced with the ruling majority’s opinion that much of what they seek to achieve with these laws directly contradicts the letter and the spirit of the Constitution, liberals are flummoxed. They say that the justices are either naïve or seeking to promote some nefarious agenda by asking those who defend much of the body of campaign finance legislation to take the basic protections afforded political speech in the Constitution into account. Though the left thinks it is self-evident that campaign contributions are an evil that must be severely restricted if not banned altogether, their problem is that they keep forgetting about the First Amendment and that language about free speech. While we are being told the debate about campaign-finance laws is about the rich versus the “people,” their argument with Chief Justice John Roberts and the four other conservatives who voted with him on McCutcheon is really with the Constitution itself.
Of course, it’s not that liberals don’t believe in the Constitution at all. It’s just that they think free speech protections are only somehow relevant to a few specific categories of activity. Liberal jurisprudence has applied First Amendment protections to lots of things that used to be illegal, like flag burning and pornography. They’ve also applied it to activities such as allowing a Nazi march in a heavily Jewish town.
Thankfully, there is also a consensus that the First Amendment clearly applies, as its text indicates, to the right of the press to operate without interference from the government. But, as any media veteran knows, freedom of the press in this country has always meant the right of those who own the press to promulgate whatever views they like. The only way for most of the rest of us to gain some of that same freedom was to pool our money to buy time or space in the media to put forward a different point of view. Though liberal ideologues like Jeffrey Toobin mock the notion that giving money to a campaign is, as Roberts says, “participating in a political debate,” that is exactly what it is. Thus, as Roberts also pointed out in his opinion, the main impact of laws that drastically restrict the ability of individuals to spend money on politics was to disadvantage one group in favor of others.
For liberals, democracy has somehow become dependent on the enforcement of a complex labyrinth of laws first enacted in the wake of the Watergate scandal that have created a bewildering legal landscape for all those who wish to take part in our electoral system. Each new piece of legislation intended to further the principle of good government has created new inequities and anomalies that have further distorted this system to the point where no one but a lawyer who specializes in the field can truly know whether a candidate or campaign has violated them–and even then there is no guarantee that an arbitrary federal prosecution may not ensue. The campaign-finance movement is aimed not so much at the threat from corruption as it is to grant government enormous power over the electoral process. But if the framers of the First Amendment meant anything when they forbade “abridging the freedom of speech,” surely it was to prevent the government from trying to limit political expression.
In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer complained that the majority was “eviscerating campaign finance laws.” Though the ruling in McCutcheon was narrow and left standing laws that limit contributions to individual candidates, it may well be that the court will soon take up other related issues as well. But if it does, it will not be because they want to steal from the poor and give to the rich or turn the United States into an oligarchy. It will be because the liberal drive to restrict political speech contravenes basic constitutional principles.
For too long, the courts have let Congress and the growing federal electoral bureaucracy run roughshod over the First Amendment. But contrary to Breyer, “democratic legitimacy” does not rest in allowing the government (which is to say incumbents who always stand to benefit from restrictions that hurt their challengers more than themselves) to distort the electoral process. Democracy means letting everyone speak up, whether we like them or not. It is that prospect that drives liberals crazy. If the Roberts court is bent on preventing them from having their way on campaign finance, the fault lies with not with conservatism or deference to wealth but with the Constitution.