Unless one is very active in looking for and absorbing a variety of news sources which treat matters with some depth, one might miss a critical event thats about to occur.  The U.S Supreme Court is probably going to gut McCain Feingold and give corporations unfettered power to make campaign contributions. 

As background, the Court held a number of years ago, in ruling that the federal government had only limited right to regulate campaign contributions, that, effectively money is speech and the first amendment bars limits on the freedom of speech.  Recently, several corporations made contributions to the cost of producing an anti-Hillary film that was to be aired right before an election and the lower courts (upheld by the Court) determined the film to be a campaign film.  The Court will now determine whether that film can be shown as a campaign presentation having been funded with corporate contributions outside the limits of McCain Feingold.  The premise of the ruling requested by the film’s producers is that those corporations are “persons” and therefore are entitled to first amendment protection in the form of the right to use its wealth to influence elections.  The ultimate ruling is now likely to be in favor of the producers based on the alignment of the Court, with Kennedy, the regular “swing” vote siding on the ‘right’.

Is this the right decision and why should we care?  As to the first question, there are liberals and conservatives on both sides of this issue.  Politically speaking, there are liberals who see this as an opening for political contributions by “Big Labor” in addition to big business and there are conservatives who’d rather not see unions have an expanded role in campaigns.  In fact the producers are represented by a well know first amendment attorney who has worked for many ACLU causes.  And they say “politics makes strange bedfellows”. 

But lets look at the two legal issues, is money a form of speech and are corporations “persons” entitled to first amendment protection.  As to money equating to speech, an example might help.  Last year I made $500 in political contributions in an effort to make my voice heard in a local election not governed by McCain Feingold.  That was all I could afford.  This enabled my candidate to purchase roughly 3 seconds of local TV airtime.  Concurrently a local gaming company privately held by a local family backed the opposing candidate and contributed orders of magnitude more to that candidate, giving enough money to purchase hours of local TV air time.  In effect, that corporation’s contribution enabled it to drown out my voice by the sheer weight of its contribution.   In effect, that family is permitted by virtue of its wealth to have a greater and very direct impact on the outcome of the election. 

And if money is speech does a corporation really have a first amendment right?  Did the framers of the Constitution really mean for Congress to be hamstrung in its rights to control corporations?  Did they even think about corporate entities?  While corporations did exist at the time, they were nothing at all like the corporations of today.  They were not the megaliths that exist today.  And they had little if any political role.  And if they are “persons” for purposes of the first amendment, is that because of the constitution or because of the State laws that creates them and treat them as a “person”.  And what of the concept of “strict construction”?  Why is it that the 5 Justices who decry judicial activism the loudest when the fourth amendment is stretched to bar limits on abortion because abortion is not an express right, are not saying that corporations are not mentioned in the constitution and so have no rights? 

The whole concept of free speech is that the free flow of information in the marketplace of ideas assures that the electorate will have the opportunity to make its decision on the basis of all available concepts.  Freedom of speech does not require that wealthy be given a higher podium in that marketplace or more time at the podium so as to tilt the playing field in their favor.  But when we allow corporations to use their wealth to monopolize that marketplace, to overwhelm it with their ideas and values, the values and ideas of the less wealthy, of which there are far more, are drowned out to the point of irrelevancy.  When one looks at the data of the last generation of elections, the one fact that jumps off the page is that the candidate with the most money to spend wins a greater percentage of the time than any other single determinant, i.e. the vast majority of the time.   And the margin of victory is generally directly proportional to the difference in funding.  Therefore,  one can conclude with some certainty that, if corporations are allowed to pour significantly more dollars into elections, they will have a significantly greater impact on the results.  One can reasonably argue that this will move us from a Democracy towards a “Corporatacracy” where the greatest share of political power is wielded directly and clearly by the wealthy, corporate interests and not by individuals.   Does the first amendment really require this?

As 2010 fast approaches, we enter a decennial orgy of partisan machinations which will set the tone of politics for the ensuing decade.  On April 1, 2010, hordes of non-ACORN workers will descend on us to take that complete count mandated by our Constitution called the Census.  This will be followed by the conflagration of gerrymandering our system has repeated 22 times.  However, with the aid of more detailed counting processes and the use of ever more complex computer analyses of that data, our state legislatures will create a set of districts which will contain overly homogenized populaces to guaranty the states’  respective majorities a virtually safe majority in a majority of legislative districts and hopefully all the congresssional districts. 

Oh gerrymandering isn’t new and no one who is rational can expect it to end.  But there is a more recent set of phenomena that we need to talk about, and that is its impact on our discourse and the resulting political effects.  Joe Wilson is on of many representatives (of both parties) in districts that are so homogenized that no opposition candidate can hope to attract either the funding or electoral support to be seriously considered.  As a result, the primary for the majority party is the real election in those districts.  There are two side effects of this kind of process:   the opposition voters are essentially silenced and the winner is the candidate with a mere plurality who has wooed the largest segment of the party “base”.  As a result, such a winner can be expected to both ignore the opposition in his or her political thinking and to focus more on that “base”, generally the more extreme of that party.  This catering to the base makes it far more difficult for those legislators in those districts to participate in bipartisanship or political compromise.  And the new gerrymandering that will take place in 2011 will exascerbate this problem to the next order of magnitude.

And so we get the kind of discourse that has evolved to new levels of ill-manneredness present over the last 2 or 3 decades.  We get a member of the House, calling the President a liar in the midst of a joint session of Congress.  We get a former Governor catering to her following and seeking the approval of the ‘base’ by making up out of whole cloth the concept of a “Death Panel”.  We get Tea Party leaders encouraging people to call Mr. Obama both a fascist and a communist, oxymoronic opposites, in same breath.

The problem isn’t the ideology of the two parties.  The Republican party doesn’t really believe in small government or smaller budgets (although certainly some Republicans do) when it comes to catering to its funding source, big business.  An easy example of the party’s philosophy in practice is the Medicare drug benefit enacted by a Republican controlled Congress and signed into law by a Republican President.  That “benefit” had 3 main impacts:  One, it provided the vast majority of medicare recipients with a relatively small benefit before those recipients would have to reach deep into their pockets to fund the so-called “donut hole”; Two, it barred Medicare from negotiating prices with the Drug Companies, so both recipients and the Federal Treasury (read as you and I the taxpayers) were obligated to pay the list price for all covered drugs, resulting in;  Three, the cost of the program, will cause Medicare to incur trillions in deficits and eventual insolvency over the coming decades. 

Conversely, the Democrats, as a party, seem to be unwilling to address even the simplest of controls when it comes to their large funding sources, i.e. “Big Labor”.  The Democratic Party should be fighting to make our public education system, a social program if ever there was one, the best in the world.  However, even in a compromise to obtain sorely needed funding for education, the Democratic Party fails, time after time, to participate in enacting accountability systems that can assist administrators to force out bad teachers or make educational systems operate more efficiently? 

My response to both sets of issues is the same, our political discourse is so polarized that we are moving away from a government aimed at addressing problems efficiently and towards a system that is based solely on the polemics necessary to perpetuate a given parties strangehold on those districts where safety of a majority is the guiding principal.  If you are a conservative voter, don’t accept simplistic conepts like Death Panels and rush to the conclusion that health care reform is some kind of horrific government take-over of the medical universe.  Doctors, who know the system best, are overwhelmingly in favor of reform, even if costs are controlled or reduced, because, among other things, those 40,000,000 new insureds that we as a society need to insure, are 40,000,000 new customers (who are currently getting free  but costly care in your local Emergency Room).  Yes there will be  a cost that will be funded partly through employer payments, taxing of “cadillac’ insurance plans and closing of certain tax loopholes, but that cost is both necessary and important.  On the other side of the coin, if you are a liberal, recognize that we cant’ have a single payor system and that compromise is an essential part of our system where we give a little to get most of what we view as necessary.

In simplified terms, we need to pull back from this brink of polarization.  We need to recognize that we can’t have 100% of what we believe is best and learn to work with our opponents to find that “win/win” solution instead of fighting tooth and nail to have only the “zero sum” compromise that makes both sides unhappy.