After all these years of trying to solve the most obvious problem in politics—that money creates terrible inequities—it’s back to square one: Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling
effectively means American corporations are free to spend as much money as they wanna spend to elect whomever they want. Which, honestly, makes some amount of sense. Campaign finance restrictions were always a little artificial—free speech, but not if you can buy it.
Still, the problem is absolute: The rich, with their enhanced free speech capabilities, can buy elections, creating a powerful democratic contradiction.
But I have the solution. It’s been obvious since the earliest days of television. In fact, the problem with the electoral system isn’t money, it’s television.
The overwhelming share of campaign money is spent on TV media time. Therefore, if you eliminate the cost of that media, the problem of disproportionate free speech is solved.
Actually, this is so obvious that for it not to have been the central point of this debate suggests that nobody really ever wanted to truly level the playing field. And that people in the media business, strongly influencing this discussion, were understandably having none of it.
It would have been easy enough for Congress or the FCC to have mandated free advertising time for political messages. Every candidate, qualified in some more or less reasonable way, gets an equal amount of media time. Why not? Broadcasters would have lost money for sure, but, media being of intangible value, this giveaway would not have cost them money (what’s more, this is, after all, the public’s air time, or, in the case of cable, the public’s franchise). How could this not have been an obvious and ideal solution for everybody but the television business?
Of course, some richies and their corporate allies might always buy more media on top of their allotted time, as Mayor Bloomberg surely would. But if the basic allotment is large enough, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Also, everybody gets a fair chance to make their case and to raise more money on the basis of their message—rather than to raise more money on the basis of already having raised money.
Everything changes under this system. Politics now is primarily about raising money (or begging for it), but with media bills covered, financing a campaign becomes an ancillary task. The beleaguered and the cynical and those temperamentally disinclined to beg will be more apt to participate in the system. What’s more, with television widely accessible, the quality of the message becomes more significant than the ubiquity.
It’s an easy fix and it would create a much less nutty country.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.