Friday, September 26, 2014

Money and Speech

I'm really tired of the canard that money suddenly has an outsized influence in politics. Plenty of studies show that money follows likely winners, but doesn't determine the winners of elections. More importantly, this September 7, 2014 column by Senators Tom Udall of New Mexico and Bernie Sanders of Vermont ignores the most basic of all questions…
In 2010, the Supreme Court issued a disastrous 5-4 opinion striking down major parts of a 2002 campaign-finance reform law in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This case and subsequent rulings, including McCutcheon v. FEC, have led to the explosion of outside money in elections through so-called super PACs. In the 2012 election, we quickly saw the results — 32 major super PAC donors combined to give more money than the millions of ordinary Americans who donated less than $200 each to Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. More than 60 percent of all super PAC funds came from just 159 donors, each of whom gave more than $1 million.

Even more worrisome is the explosion of "dark money" — dollars spent by groups that do not have to disclose their funding sources. The 2012 election saw almost $300 million in dark money spending, and the 2014 election could potentially see as much as $1 billion.

No single issue is more important to the needs of average Americans. If we cannot control billionaires' power to buy elections, the people elected to office will be responsive to the needs of the rich and powerful, rather than the needs of everyone else.

When the Supreme Court says, for purposes of the First Amendment, that corporations are people, that writing checks from the company's bank account is constitutionally protected speech and that attempts to impose reasonable restrictions on campaign ads are unconstitutional, our democracy is in grave danger.
And my question is…

Who owns "the press" that has Constitutionally protected speech? Yep, corporations own most of the major media outlets from which people get their political news. These might be for-profit conglomerates or non-profit activist corporations, but they are some legal form of "entity" with Constitutional protections.

It would be a huge, huge mistake to change the Constitution in any way that allows politicians or their appointees the power to regulate communication. Former U.S. solicitor general Ted Olson's response in the Wall Street Journal is dead-on: Democrats are trying to rewrite the First Amendment in a way that would apply to newspapers, websites, pamphlets, and other expressions of ideas.
The Obama administration conceded during oral argument that the law would permit the government to ban the publication of political books or pamphlets. Pamphlets and books ignited the revolution that created this country and the Bill of Rights. In pushing to overturn the court's decision, Mr. Reid and his Democratic colleagues apparently wish they had the power to stop books, pamphlets—as well as broadcasting—that threaten their hold on their government jobs.

Incidentally, President Obama's complaint in his 2010 State of the Union address that Citizens United "reversed a century of law" was false. The court preserved the architecture of the campaign-finance laws but overturned an anomalous 1990 decision in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (and its progeny) that would have permitted statutory limits on corporate speech to help level, or equalize, the playing field in election campaigns. Even the Obama administration was unwilling to defendAustin's rationale in briefs to the court, presumably because it would warrant all manner of government thumbs on the scale regarding election rhetoric, possibly even imposing handicaps to balance the advantage of incumbency.
Throughout the history of the United States people and groups have used printing presses to promote political agendas. There is a reason some newspapers were the "Times Democrat" or the "Republican Journal" a century ago. Most papers dropped the "Democrat" or "Republican" labels from their nameplates (mastheads) after World War II, as there was an emphasis on seeming neutral. But, we can still determine the biases of most media outlets without the labeling.

It's no secret that families bought newspapers to promote their views. The names of politically engaged publishers are legend: Hearst, Pulitzer, Ochs, Chandler, and Graham. Today, new names are emerging, like Bezos, Murdoch, and Zell.

Many magazines were founded not to make money, but to promote political ideals. If rich people want to promote their views, they will find a way.

Media ownership should include some social responsibility, but I don't want anyone dictating or trying to monitor the perceived biases of various media outlets, even those with significant foreign ownership. Most major publishers are international, after all.

That foreign investors (Carlos Slim) can own controlling shares in major media like the New York Times doesn't seem to worry progressives. But, they are quite worried about companies of any sort promoting their collective views.

Our founders used relatively expensive printing presses to encourage resistance, and eventual revolution. Today, I can use a free website, like Blogger, to promote my views. If I'm lucky, a few people read these ideas and engage in debate.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Voting (or Not) and Rhetoric of Engagement

Eligible citizens in the United States don't vote. A majority of 18 to 25-year-old voters have little faith in government and no desire to serve in public office.

Personally, I don't blame them. I was engaged until about 2006. My disengagement is as much a statement as my direct participation was. Too often, though, partisans can't understand that not being engaged is a rhetorical choice.

What if a person truly believes that both major parties are horrible for the United States and the world? The notion of voting for the "lesser of two evils" still requires voting for evil.

A pacifist I know explained it this way: She cannot, for any reason, vote for any president or party that is likely to take any military action. This is a deep religious conviction. How would she express this conviction? Voting for a minor party doesn't change the outcome, and no major media outlets cover those candidates.

I deeply object to policies of the two major parties. I cannot endorse the lesser of two evils, either. It's just too dispiriting. And many third parties are not on the ballots in every state or congressional district.

For my friend and me, my engagement is limited to doing things in our communities and speaking about our ideals. But voting? Until "None of the Above" is on all ballots, that's a problem.

My theory is that many, many citizens are choosing not to vote, and that is a rhetorical argument against the major parties and our electoral system. Not voting sends a loud, clear message that people feel powerless.
Everyone Says Turnout is Key, Why Does it Keep Going Down?
Washington Post
Dan Balz, Chief correspondent
July 26, 2014

Taken together, just 15 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots — or 18.2 million people out of 122.8 million eligible. Turnout was 17 percentage points lower than the most recent high-water mark of 32 percent in 1966. Democrats were down 14.5 points from their 1970 high, or 20.9 percent of eligible citizens, and Republicans were down five points from their 1966 high of 13 percent.
Democrats have said that making voting easier and more convenient will lead to greater participation, but there's no data to support that claim. In fact, Oregon and California, two states with the easiest access to voting, have horrendously low voting rates. Oregon votes by mail, and California lets you vote by mail or at the polls.
Four of the 25 states that have held primaries so far allow same-day registration. All saw turnout decline between 2010 and 2014. Oregon, which uses mail ballots, saw record-low turnout. California, where two-thirds of voters mail in their ballots, saw the lowest turnout ever.

The results in states that allow in-person early voting or no-excuse absentee voting were no more encouraging. Eight states that have held primaries this year employ both procedures. Two saw turnout increase; six had record lows.
I have tried to be involved in local elections. I was in the past, but today I find it nearly impossible to learn much about local elections. I fear politicians want to make it difficult to be engaged outside the two parties. Our system rewards the partisans in the two major parties, but not people wanting to make a statement against the status quo.

A colleague asked me about state politics this week and was surprised to learn that I knew little about my new state. I had to admit, I didn't understand the political machinations of our previous state, county, or city, either.

My wife and I were born and raised in California. I understand the political structures of cities, school districts, counties, and states. I knew the system well, with several friends working in government and a few holding office. The system is actually rather simple, and recent changes make it even easier to grasp. I still know the names of current mayors, supervisors, and state office holders.

California has non-partisan, open primaries. And this new approach did nothing to reduce partisanship because regions are so purely red or blue in the state that even non-partisan redistricting can't make the cities or rural areas more competitive.

At least I understood California elections. I voted, even though there were seldom any competitive races. The city council and county board often had unopposed candidates, indicating that not only is there a lack of interest in voting… there's a lack of interest in running for office!

But the political complexities of other states leave me entirely disinterested in the politics. Parties remain entrenched, with regional and state conventions. Party loyalists rise to power, dragging along debts to other party supporters. I don't like the endless campaigns, either.

Our township is within a borough is within a county. The school district has minimal geographical coherence. There's a sanitation board, for a district that doesn't adhere to other boundaries, either. There should be cities and counties, period. There is no need for so many elected groups in a small region.

I don't want to belong to a party. I don't want to register my beliefs or ideals (or lie about them) to vote in primaries, either.

People say you have to vote to have a view. Excuse me? I couldn't find out anything about local candidates. I tried. I even went to the county seat to look for voting guides. There was nothing of value online or in print. Some spoke to party meetings, but you have to belong. Few local races feature debates.

I was told if I wanted to learn more, that the two parties had large rallies in the main county park. Yes, because rallies are good for learning. No, rallies remind me why I dislike parties and groups of like-minded people in large numbers.

At the state level, I haven't formed any strong opinions beyond disliking every political leader I have heard speak. Voting for people I find equally banal is depressing. A vote for anyone outside the two parties is a waste, while I loathe the parties equally. Their candidates are disgusting.

In my dream world, candidate would have profiles online, including how they might vote on major issues. I'd vote from home, in private, and be left alone. No commercials, no yard signs, no annoyances that lack substance. Address the issues, and let me vote.

How can we revise our system? If voting by mail isn't working, if week-long voting isn't working, then clearly the problem rests with the candidates and parties. Give people something to vote for instead of arguments about lesser evils.

A city political leader I know said I should support his party since I agree with them 40 percent of the time. His argument was that agreeing on a plurality of issues should be sufficient. No. If I disagree with your party's positions on 60 percent of major issues (to me) and 80 percent of positions of the other party… that's not giving me much of a reason to vote for anyone.

"We're less disgusting than those really horrible people in that other political party." Yeah, that's a selling point. No thank you.