05 February 2012

Why Politics is Messed Up

Everybody wants to know why national politics is so bad, and almost everyone agrees that money is a big part of it.  But even if money is the problem, no one is asking how it got that way. 

Then, a few days ago I happened upon an article in either the NYTimes or the Washington Post that detailed how much influence college football has over the colleges where they play it, especially Division 1 schools  Now I can’t find it but after searching, this one squib will hint at it: Increases in Television Money Boost College Football Coaching Salaries – Forbes

College Football seeks money tor the same reason politics seeks money – influence.  And in America influence comes through your TV.  Politicians get elected by advertising, and the more they advertise the more likely they will be elected.  Gov. Romney won Florida because of his advertising as much as anything else.  By one account, The LA Times, TV is the dominant persuasive force.

You spend money to get votes (or viewers in the case of college football) and getting said votes or viewers makes you powerful.  That in turn requires even more money to stay there.  Those who are successful are rewarded with elected office or lucrative contracts. 

Sport and politics are a means to another end, power.  And once power is obtained, money keeps you there. 

This was always true, but until the advent of cable TV it was limited to a few outlets – NBC, CBS, ABC, and a rag tag of UHF stations.  Once cable TV came, and with it more news stations and more channels and a more scattered audience, the places college football teams could be televised and politicians could advertise exploded. 

The problem is not money, but the desire for TV time.  And with cable or satellite companies now offering hundreds of stations the market is virtually infinite.  That’s why only the campaign with the most money can hope to win, because TV is the way people get their political ideas and only those who can saturate TV can hope to prevail.

But there is hope.  Instead of limiting money, which is (according to the courts) a form of speech, let’s limit the time available to advertise.  Who says TV stations must sell as much time as someone wants to buy? 

Yes, I know about the market.  But let’s not confuse the market with the forum.  Political advertising is like a candidates forum, and when you go, one candidate cannot do all the talking, right?  If four candidates showed up and one claimed the right to do all the talking we would say that isn’t fair.  How can we choose when only one gets to speak?  Or one gets to do most of the talking? 

Democracy demands that we give all voices an equal chance to be heard so people can make a reasonable choice.  I say, let’s limit the amount of TV political advertising because broadcasters (even cable ones who still send their signals through the air before they get to you) are licensed to broadcast because the airways are publicly owned. They must limit the amount they sell and cannot sell more than a portion of that to any one candidate. 

We rightly call it corruption when politicians use public goods for private and partisan advantage.  TV and radio and the internet are public byways, essential to the working of democracy.  When any one person or party effectively controls them, that is corrupt. 

I’m all verklempt from my birthday yesterday.  Discuss!


Anonymous said...

This 2008 article from George Washington U Law Review is pertinent, with respect to equal time, the airwaves, and cable.http://groups.law.gwu.edu/LR/ArticlePDF/76-4-Janow.pdf

Anonymous said...

This 2008 article from George Washington U Law Review is pertinent, wit respect to equal time, the airwaves, and cable.http://groups.law.gwu.edu/LR/ArticlePDF/76-4-Janow.pdf

Bill Baar said...

William O. Douglas said it best in United States v. United Auto Workers, 352 U.S. 567 (1957):

The principle at stake is not peculiar to unions. It is applicable as well to associations of manufacturers, retail and wholesale trade groups, consumers’ leagues, farmers’ unions, religious groups and every other association representing a segment of American life and taking an active part in our political campaigns and discussions. It is as important an issue as has come before the Court, for it reaches the very vitals of our system of government.

Under our Constitution it is We The People who are sovereign … It is therefore important—vitally important—that all channels of communication be open to them during every election, that no point of view be restrained or barred, and that the people have access to the views of every group in the community.

In United States v. CIO, Mr. Justice Rutledge spoke of the importance of the First Amendment rights—freedom of expression and freedom or assembly—to the integrity of our elections. “The most complete exercise of those rights,” he said, “is essential to the full, fair and untrammeled operation of the electoral process. To the extent they are curtailed the electorate is deprived of information, knowledge, and opinion vital to its function.”

What the Court does today greatly impairs those rights. It sustains an indictment charging no more than the use of union funds for broadcasting television programs that urge and endorse the selection of certain candidates for the Congress of the United States. The opinion of the Court places that advocacy in the setting of corrupt practices. the opinion generates an environment of evil-doing…

[E]ndorsing a candidate for office does not, however, deserve to be identified with anti-social conduct. Until today political speech has never been considered a crime. The making of a political speech up to now has always been one of the preferred rights protected by the First Amendment. It usually cost money to communicate an idea to a large audience. But no one would seriously contend that the expenditure of money to print a newspaper deprives the publisher of freedom of the press. Nor can the fact that it costs money to make a speech—whether it be hiring a hall or purchasing time on the air—make the speech any the less an exercise of First Amendment rights….”

The People who are sovereign: not those who take it upon themselves to muzzle the noisy.