In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court ruled that restrictions on campaign donations abridged First Amendment rights. This gutted campaign finance laws, opening up elections to a barrage of big money.
Ever since, Americans have seen a tsunami of ads, backed by billions in “dark money” — so called because we don’t know who’s donating. Broadcasters and well-heeled interests benefit to the detriment of the public interest.
Concerned citizens have rightly sought to reverse this damaging assault on democracy. But we’re considering wrong-headed remedies, such as a constitutional amendment to reverse the ruling.
Attempts to regulate money in politics are misguided.
First, nothing short of a revolutionary restructuring of our economic system will purge politics of money. Politics is about power, and in our capitalistic system money is power’s prime medium. Notwithstanding absurd claims about President Barack Obama, the prospects for socialism are scant.
Second, even if a constitutional amendment succeeded, or we had better regulation of donations to parties and candidates, we’d still be in essentially the same boat.
That’s because Citizens United only magnified a longstanding problem. Money determines access to the airwaves, which are our chief public sphere. Money talks, and on the airwaves it does so by buying ads. Citizens United eliminated limitations on money, but it points to the real problem: access to the airwaves.
A viable, simple solution to the problem of money’s undue influence on our politics is to require broadcasters to provide free airtime to political candidates before elections.
This would relieve candidates from having to raise ever-increasing mountains of money to speak to the public. Incumbents could instead spend the time they previously devoted to fundraising to serving the public (their job). Challengers could spend that time better preparing themselves to serve.
Candidates would likely be less beholden to donors and special interests and more likely attuned to the public interest.
Free airtime might begin to break the party duopoly that constricts American politics. The fastest growing party affiliation in America is independent; yet only two nominal independents serve in Congress.
Polls consistently show that Americans favor higher taxes on the wealthy, and more money spent for education and less for war, yet bipartisan policies persistently favor the wealthy and war.
America is growing more diverse, but our politics are narrowing. Free airtime may help us to make our politics more pluralistic.
If access to the airwaves wasn’t dependent upon money, candidates could be freed from the limitations of 30-second or one-minute ads.
Politics should deal with complex ideas and demand rational engagement. But when candidates must cram political communication into quick pitches, it’s no surprise (but no excuse) that they are misleadingly simple, propagandistic and aimed at our heart or gut, rather than at our mind.
Free airtime may even help reduce the negativity of political discourse. Short ads encourage the substitution of stereotyped epitaphs (socialist, outsourcer) for substantive criticism of an opponent’s policies, platform and ideology. You can tear someone down much more quickly than you can build yourself up.
Free airtime may help us to engage in critical discussion about our political problems and the policies and representatives best suited to tackle them.
Several countries have free airtime — the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Britain and Brazil. Their politics better reflect public opinion, and their political discourse is more rational and less sensational.
Of course free airtime doesn’t create a better political culture but can help to foster it.
Undoubtedly, broadcasting interests might object that free airtime would hurt their business.
Broadcasting is one of the most profitable American enterprises. And it’s lucrative year-round, regardless of campaigns. I don’t recall TV or radio ever going commercial free when there were no campaigns.
Broadcasters may also claim free airtime undermines the free market. If broadcasters weren’t granted quasi-monopoly status to operate our airwaves they would have a point. (By the way, they don’t pay the public a dime for using our airwaves). Like public utilities, they have an enormous public subsidy in exchange for providing a public service.
The Federal Communications Commission licenses broadcasters to operate in the public interest, not simply for private, special interests.
I cannot think of a more pressing public interest than fixing the broken political culture that’s aggravating, rather than addressing, our national and international problems.
Free airtime is no panacea. Our political system wasn’t broken overnight, and fixing it will take time, effort and additional measures.
But free airtime offers a politically viable means for restructuring how we discuss, debate and choose our representatives. That’s a significant start.
Matt Killmeier is associate professor of communication and media studies at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.