By recently voicing full-hearted approval of a bill eviscerating the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, Senate Democrats showed themselves to be among the most extreme, irresponsible, self-serving and historically ignorant establishment politicians of this era. If they should actually get their way — and they conceivably could short of voter outrage — we could someday see a once-strapping American spirit hopelessly hobbled when imperiousness comes its way.
It will never happen, say many who apparently haven’t noticed what I’ve noticed in my lifetime, namely that almost every significant, broad political or cultural change was once something that would never happen.
No, it will not happen soon, and there are major hurdles, such as the need for supermajorities in Congress prior to ratification by states. But 54 Democrats getting behind a failed resolution in a party-line vote is hardly a timid start, and the amendment has much more going for it: fear of billionaire, special-interest fat cats, a public seemingly susceptible to cries of crisis and victimhood and great numbers of pundits and academics who share these worries.
Some of us would insist in return that government should stay out of the way of our discourse. We would maintain that democracy entails the assumption that citizens themselves are the ones charged with evaluating what they hear, and we would add there’s always an answer when politician sell their souls: Throw the rascals out.
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Of course, such reasoning carries something on the order of no weight at all with members of Congress forever crafting campaign-finance laws supposedly aimed at ending the corruption of special interests buying political favors.
Such things are hard to test, but some say the laws have accomplished no such end. What they have done instead, some will tell you, is suppress nonprofit corporations concerned strictly with issues while assisting hugely advantaged incumbents by limiting the funds campaign challengers can come up with.
The First Amendment is not foggy on any of this. It bluntly says Congress shall pass no law abridging free speech. These campaign laws clearly did, and in 2010 the Supreme Court looked at a case in which a group was being denied the right to criticize Hillary Clinton. This organization had made a Clinton movie, wanted to advertise it on TV and pay to have it shown close to an election. Campaign law said no. The Supreme Court, figuring out this was no different in kind from banning a book, continued a prohibition against corporations contributing to candidates, but also ruled they could speak out by other means.
The case was called Citizens United, it did open doors to still more corporate ads sponsored by the rich on both left and right, and multi-gaggles of Democrats said that if they had to rewrite the Constitution to end these speech rights, they would, by golly. And so they got behind this constitutional amendment giving Congress power to regulate the raising and spending of money that could have influence on elections. Either as a concession to reasonableness or out of fear of backlash, the amendment says the press should be left alone.
It is a scary thing, this amendment is. It would enable Congress to act against all kinds of speech we now take for granted. The slightest reading of history tells you repressive measures would be tried and a glance at current affairs tells you the risk would be government of, by and for government.
The direction of American politics is still basically determined by average voters, not by billionaires. But voters do give up their power to protect themselves when they don’t pay attention enough to know when the politicians are up to no good, as in dreaming up a way to amend citizenship to narrow political purposes. These politicians are far more dangerous than the billionaires.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.
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