Campaign FinancE

Free Speech, Campaign FinancE, and Democratic Integrity

The interplay between free speech, campaign finance, and American democracy is becoming more unsettled. To help understand the complexities of these interwoven issues, Professor Barry McDonald leans on his expertise to untangle these issues. We ask, is money free speech? In which way does campaign financing shape our democracy? We explore these questions below.

When Free Speech and Money Intertwine

a stack of coins in front of a clock

The reason there is so much talk about free speech and money is mostly due to the controversial Supreme Court decision regarding Citizens United in 2010. Essentially, the ruling stated that money is actually a form of free speech in political contexts. 

But McDonald challenges this notion. He suggests that while money can amplify speech, it still remains nothing more than a medium of exchange. It is not a form of expression. “Money is clearly not speech. Money is a unit of economic exchange. Money is more like a bullhorn that can amplify speech and spread it further.” 

We need to reevaluate how financial contributions impact politics. Equating money and financial contributions to free speech creates challenges for maintaining a level playing field in politics. What happens is wealthy donors and corporations have more of a “say” because of their money. They can essentially silence the voices of ordinary citizens with their money, putting the power in the hands of the super wealthy rather than the broader electorate.

How The Citizens United Ruling Increased the Influence of Wealth

The Citizens United ruling was truly a game-changer. Under the current legal framework, the wealthy clearly have more influence. McDonald argues that the ruling has distorted the democratic process, taken power from the average citizen, and put it in the hands of the money elite. “The liberal justices have always said, come on, that that is not our vision of how a well-functioning democracy should operate, that, you know, those with money should have a greater say in affairs of governance than those without money.”

However, that’s not what’s happening. Corporations and unions alike now have more political power than ever because of their treasuries. It has fundamentally changed how we view campaign finance. Now, a flood of corporate and union money is directly controlling PACs. 

And what about transparency and accountability? Because the ruling allows for unlimited spending, political access to the money fosters an environment where politicians and campaigns don’t play by the rules.

Is Campaign Finance Reform the Answer?

So, what is the answer? How about public financing of elections? This reform could curb the massive influence of private wealth in politics and political campaigns. There needs to be a way to make the democratic process more than just money. 

“They have come to say in a couple of major recent decisions that, you know, people with more money, and particularly if we’re talking about corporations or unions or billionaires, to the extent that they’re able to with their money to show support to a legislator…that’s just the way our democracy works and that’s built into our democracy,” McDonald says.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Reforms could ensure that all citizens, both poor and wealthy, have a voice in the political process. One reform involves using government funds for campaign use instead of private donors.

Did the Supreme Court Step Too Far?

Should the judiciary branch really be shaping campaign financing issues? When the Supreme Court defines the boundaries and makes the rules without the input of other government branches, it limits our democracy. “I don’t think five or six lawyers appointed to the Supreme Court ought to be telling the American people how their system of elections can or can’t be run,” McDonald states.

Want to Learn More?

By continuing to discuss these issues, we are able to bring the parts of our political process that aren’t working to light. And these discussions are democracy in action. Continue the conversation by listening to our latest podcast episode with Professor Barry McDonald.

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