Breaking: Democracy Survives Unregulated Political Speech

As John Samples observes, this week’s election does not seem to have borne out fears that the Citizens United decision would wreck American democracy and usher in a new age of corporate feudalism. In an article headlined “Little to Show for Cash Flood by Big Donors,” the New York Times concludes that the end result of all those massive independent expenditures by superPACs was that “the nation’s megadonors returned home with lighter wallets and few victories.”

The strange thing is that proponents of campaign finance regulation, who typically profess great faith in democracy, would have expected otherwise.

In a way, concerns about the deleterious influence of political spending would be a more natural fit for libertarians or conservatives. We, after all, are the ones who are often skeptical about the “wisdom of crowds” in politics, because we recognize that most voters are rationally ignorant about the wide range of complex policy areas over which our massive modern federal government exercises control. We are the ones who worry that well-intentioned laws and regulations will end up being drafted and implemented in ways that suit the interests of well-heeled lobbyists, while ordinary citizens are busy paying attention to their jobs and families. So you might well expect us to be worried about voters being unduly influenced by slickly produced 30-second TV spots, even if respect for the principle of free political speech ultimately trumps those fears.

Yet the progressives who were most alarmed about the consequences of Citizens United normally purport not to share this view. They advocate greater government control over a far broader sphere of American life, on the premise that the power of government is more accountable to the public, and more likely to promote broad public interests, than unregulated private power. Implicit in this view is a fairly optimistic assumption about the capacity of the average citizen to monitor a vast and complex centralized bureaucracy, and to ensure that government power really is used to promote the general welfare rather than line the pockets of concentrated interests.

This assumption strikes me as rather obviously and dramatically inconsistent with a view on which Satan himself can buy election to federal office by running enough television commercials. If voters were truly that gullible and easily led, why on earth would you expect them to make wise decisions once the ads were pulled from the air? On this view, demanding regulation of political speech would be a little like mandating big orange “Point this end forward” stickers on handguns.

While I’m not nearly as optimistic as progressives when it comes to holding the federal leviathan accountable, I don’t think voters are complete lemmings. Advertising can be crucial for building awareness, but the industry’s history is littered with brilliant ad campaigns that weren’t good enough to save products consumers didn’t like. Political ads, too, can serve an important function by drawing public attention to issues and arguments—but especially in an age of unprecedented access to information, they can’t make citizens buy what’s being offered.  This time, obviously, voters weren’t buying, but that doesn’t mean they should be prevented from hearing the argument. It’s a mystery why avowed believers in democracy would ever have thought otherwise.