"The constitutional amendment before us," Harry Reid said Tuesday, describing a proposal to give federal and state governments the authority to regulate political giving, "isn’t about limiting free speech."
Harry Reid, may I present the American Civil Liberties Union. I am sure you two have met before.
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Writing in June that the nonprofit "strongly opposes" the so-called Udall amendment, the ACLU’s Laura Murphy and Gabriel Rottman called the Democratic proposal "deceptively complex," "unnecessary," "redundant of existing law," "dangerous for liberties," "vague," "overbroad," "exceedingly dangerous to democratic processes," and "the first time the amendatory process has been used to directly limit specifically enumerated rights and freedoms." Reid’s baby, the ACLU said, would "‘break’ the Constitution" by "amending the First Amendment."
Two levels of government would be permitted "to criminalize and censor all issue advocacy that mentions or refers to a candidate under the argument that it supports or opposes that candidate." Recall that Citizens United, which the Udall amendment is supposed to address, was not about Tea Party Astroturf. It was about the FEC’s attempt to censor a film critical of her royal highness.
The mandarins at the FEC and IRS, as well as their counterparts at the state level, would be responsible for distinguishing political communications that "support or oppose" a candidate from those that do not. They would penalize the individuals and groups they subjectively deem violators of administrative diktat. If this is not about "limiting free speech," what is?
I am not speaking abstractly. Want an image of a post-Udall world? Think Lois Lerner on Spring Break—after a bottle of tequila.
"My Democratic colleagues and I," Reid says, "are trying to address the special interest money that threatens to create a government of elected officials who are beholden to a few wealthy individuals." But we can dismiss this rationalization outright. It is an example of what the Freudians call projection: the denial of immoral urges by transferring them to another. Projection is a disorder.
Special interest money and super-wealthy individuals are two of the most prominent features of today’s bourgeois liberalism. The unions, the foundations, the colleges, the liberal-leaning or rent-seeking corporations, the residents of Manhattan and Silicon Valley and Beverly Hills and Ward 3, Warren Buffett, George Soros, Tom Steyer, Marc Lasry, Steve Mostyn, Michael Bloomberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Chris Hughes—these groups, these men, they are not misshapen appendages of the Democratic Party. They are its innards. Its guts.
Indeed, one of the reasons that Reid scheduled a vote on a measure that was sure to be defeated was, in the first place, to curry favor with, and solicit checks from, rich donors to progressive causes who have a sentimental and moralistic aversion to money in politics. It is part of Reid’s plan to smear Republican candidates as instruments of the wealthy brothers Charles and David Koch, and thereby prevent a GOP takeover of the Senate.
From a financial standpoint, Reid’s strategy is working. His Senate Majority PAC, which does not disclose its donors, has run more advertisements than the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity, and has spent almost as much money. The fundraising of Democratic Senate candidates is competitive with that of their Republican counterparts. The top three individual contributors to federal elections this cycle are Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg and Fred Eychaner. They are not Republicans. The day that Reid opened debate over the Udall amendment, the DCCC issued a fundraising appeal tied to the vote. Ironic.
The scale of the progressive infrastructure is staggering. It is coordinated and funded by the Democracy Alliance, a secretive group of millionaires and billionaires that plots strategy and giving at meetings in fancy resorts. Documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon reveal that there are at least 172 groups inside the Democracy Alliance network. "113 of them have attacked us," Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden said recently, noting that far fewer groups—31—make up Koch world. The Kochs may spend up to $290 million in the 2014 election. Sounds like a lot. But Holden says the progressives may spend "somewhere in the ballpark" of $2.2 billion.
These numbers make clear that the goal of Reid and Udall is not to expunge money from politics. Their goal is to expunge conservative money from politics—money that could be used against incumbents, money that could be used against them, money that could be used to organize and promote alternatives to the Hegelian god-state coming into being before our eyes. Their goal is no less than a silent coup, a renegotiation of the American social contract and the structure of the constitutional order, performed outside the public’s notice and without the public’s direct consent.
The Udall amendment subverts freedom in two ways. First, by exempting media from regulation, the government would determine who or what "the media" are. Certified institutions would become the few remaining outlets for free expression. Perhaps you have noticed that the press tends to favor a certain ideological standpoint. In a post-Udall world, the influence of press barons such as Buffett and Bloomberg and Mexican oligarch Carlos Slim would increase. Reinstating the Fairness Doctrine would silence conservatives further.
There is only one Rupert Murdoch. If someone of like mind as the Koch brothers tried to build a press operation of their own, we know what would happen. The liberal media would revolt.
Second, by endowing governments with the power to ban anonymous political giving, the Udall amendment would usher in an era of witch-hunts and public shaming, with the media using their new powers to condemn and malign and stigmatize and penalize the advocates of unfashionable causes.
We have already seen that a years-old, small donation to a judicially overturned plebiscite can cost a man his job. But the fight over disclosure is about more than the same-sex marriage debate. "During the civil rights era," the ACLU notes in its letter, "southern states often tried to use laws forcing groups exercising First Amendment rights to disclose their membership, in a bid to run them out of town."
In a post-Udall world, legislative bodies would be arenas where members of one party criminalize the speech of the other. Religious liberty groups would be exiled from, say, New York; gun control groups from Texas. Says the ACLU: "Congress would, for instance, be free to pass laws targeting only ‘political’ speech by groups like ACORN." Or like Americans for Prosperity.
Media power and disclosure work together to undermine the adversaries of the caste, the twenty-first century oligarchy of tech entrepreneurs and media executives, lawyers and administrators, professors and foundation officers, journalists and actors, studio executives and museum officials, heirs and heiresses and progressive and politically connected bankers and investors. This is the plutocracy that dominates the presidency and the Senate and the bureaucracy and the academy and philanthropy and print and electronic media, that determines the contours of elite opinion, that decides what is "reality-based" and "empirical," what is "faith-based" and "ideological." This is the educated class that writes our laws and newspapers and screenplays and late-night comedy routines, that fashions itself the guardian of equality and progress and diversity and all that is true and good even as it profits off the regulations it imposes, the industries it subsidizes, the cheap labor it imports, the racial and sexual controversies it sensationalizes.
What we saw in Harry Reid’s Senate this week, when the Udall amendment failed a cloture vote, when 54 Democrats voted to refashion the First Amendment to serve the interests of incumbency and power, was not a noble cause. It was not good government. It was not an example of altruistic intentions stifled by Wall Street.
What we saw in Harry Reid's Senate this week was an attempt by the ascendant part of the elite, the part that makes its living from abstraction, to vanquish the declining part, the part that makes its living from extraction. And this sorry excuse for a legislative week did more than reveal, in real time, the structure and nature of class struggle in America today. It also occasioned a sentence I never thought I would write. If only Harry Reid listened to the ACLU.