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Our Fragile Democracy

February 3rd, 2010 · 27 Comments

Ok, so, I get both the legal and the substantive beefs people have with Citizens United.  I’m basically a “political speech? well, bugger off” sort of guy, so all this business about whether corporations are +3 paladins or whatever just doesn’t interest me, but I understand the arguments. Bracketing all that, though, if you really think this is a death knell for democracy… why do you even believe in democracy? The status quo is that corporations influence  politics by straight bribery, thinly concealed by various means.  The CU ruling means that, alternatively or additionally, they can throw money at making some kind of explicit argument on the teevee.  In our sad flawed little world, the bigger megaphone means they have more influence than some dude in Hyde Park who might have a better argument.  But if that wrecks democracy, then democracy has no justificatory value at all.  You have to pick.

On the one hand, maybe for all our folly we’re basically engaged enough—or the people who decide to vote are engaged enough—that we can sift through the media maelstrom and figure out, on average, whose principles, character, and record best represent our community. On the other hand, maybe we’re a bunch of chimps who will vote for the shiny thing.  I incline toward the latter, but I’ve never been all that big on the intrinsic virtues of democracy.  I just have trouble wrapping my head around the view that combines these two beliefs: (1) The wisdom of the people, on the whole, justifies not just the installation of Candidate A over Candidate B, but a whole array of coercive state policies, and also (2) We’re really easily led, and will sell our firstborn to Altria if a slick ad says to. It seems strange for both those things to be true.

Tags: Journalism & the Media


       

 

27 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jacob Wintersmith // Feb 3, 2010 at 2:07 am

    Or as Robin Hanson put it, most of the arguments against giving corporations the right to political speech work even better as arguments against giving dumb people the right to vote.

  • 2 Matt Frost // Feb 3, 2010 at 6:26 am

    Or as IOZ likes to say, “the food in this place is terrible! And the portions, so small!”

  • 3 mike farmer // Feb 3, 2010 at 7:50 am

    Seeing as how only half the eliglble voters vote, that narrows the chimp problem down significantly. The ones who do vote have traditionaly voted out of partisan loyalty or out of self interest. But, I see a glimmer of hope now that more people are paying attention and are actually thinking about politics. I don’t share your cynicism — the people who vote are diverse, and there are certainly doofuses among them, just as there are doofuses running for office and doofuses talking about voters and those who run for ofice — but there are also a lot of very smart people among all those groups.

  • 4 Adam // Feb 3, 2010 at 8:47 am

    I’m not one of those people hugely worked up about Citizens United, but this still strikes me as a pretty weak argument. I’ve given this about twenty seconds of thought, but it seems to me the justificatory value of democracy rests on two different notions: the first is that people have an inherent right to self-govern; the second is that democracy tends to produce better results than other forms of government, even if the results are still highly imperfect and fraught with human folly.

    It happens to be a fortunate coincidence that these two justifications pull in the same direction. It would be inconvenient if totalitarianism produced much better governance than democracy. But few would argue that democracy produces perfect outcomes, and few would argue that the structure of civil institutions — both inside and outside of government — has no influence over the quality of outcomes.

    So it strikes me as perfectly plausible to argue that CU undermines both tenets of democracy: it scrambles our notion of representative government, and it (further) weakens outcomes. Calling the decision a “death knell” is surely a bit hysterical. But it seems perfectly reasonable to point out that our democracy is in a somewhat parlous state, and CU is unlikely to help.

    Analogously: the Dilbert-ian view of U.S. corporations as hives of bureaucratic malpractice exists quite comfortably alongside the view of U.S. corporations as engines of wealth-creation and innovation. We don’t “have to pick” because both views can be simultaneously true: corporations can get things done even as they suffer under suboptimal policies, personnel, structures, and strategies. Why can’t the same be true of government?

    Relatedly: why do we view the state control of media in autocratic regimes as a bad thing? Partly it’s because state control of media offends our notion of freedom, but isn’t it also partly because we correctly intuit that control of media is actually worth something?

  • 5 mike farmer // Feb 3, 2010 at 9:10 am

    “It would be inconvenient if totalitarianism produced much better governance than democracy.”

    Unless our values changed, this would be impossible. We don’t value trains arriving on time, or workers beaten into efficiency, if it means liberty (including free speech) is destroyed

  • 6 Doug // Feb 3, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Oh, not the death knell for Democracy. The death knell for watching TV. If Citizen’s United adds 5% to the number of intolerable political ads during campaign season, I won’t even be able to watch football. Keep your precious speech.

    I’m just glad Monk didn’t live to see this.

  • 7 Matt D // Feb 3, 2010 at 11:17 am

    Putting aside the reality that corporate influence in some form or another is basically inevitable, I don’t think there’s anything particularly incoherent or inconsistent about favoring democracy while insisting that actual people be its principal participants. Likewise, I think one can reasonably believe that people have a limited but generally adequate capacity for sifting through bullshit for flecks of truth, while also believing that a doubling of the bullshit-to-truth ratio would overwhelm the average voter.

  • 8 mike farmer // Feb 3, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    So, free speech, even bullhit, is admissable so long as it isn’t excessive? Perhaps we can develope a bullshit measurement to detemine the cut-off point.

  • 9 j r // Feb 3, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    i’ve seen a lot of intellectual and philosophical ammunition spent fighting this notion that the citizens united ruling is some sort of sad note for american democracy. why bother?

    shouldn’t the proponents of campaign finance reform have to come up with some tangible theoretical and empirical justification that corporations funding political ads is actaully deleterious to a properly functioning democracy? the fact that people think campaign finance reform is anything more than incumbent protection is itself a sad reflection on the state of american democracy.

  • 10 Nick // Feb 3, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    Actually, the argument is that *I* am a wise person capable of selecting between Candidate A and Candidate B but *most people* are easily led into selling their children to drug companies. So long as my magnification is as great as anyone else’s, I have some chance of swaying the chimps.

    Essentially, all of the arguments work just as well, if not better, for a dictatorship of me, but that’s a tougher sell.

  • 11 Lemmy Caution // Feb 3, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Adam and Matt D make some good points.

  • 12 Not Sure I Agree // Feb 4, 2010 at 3:32 am

    Julian

    Bracketing all that, though, if you really think this is a death knell for democracy… why do you even believe in democracy?

    Come on, this doesn’t cut it. Don’t take “death knell” literally. And also, the first part doesn’t really have much to do with the second.

    Money influences elections. There is an issue with money being “speech.” In some ways it is, but in some ways it may not be. If it really was, anyone could donate all they wanted, to whatever and whomever, at whatever time. (It’s also not exactly one person, one voice, then either.)

    Not getting into the complexities of that area here, but now we introduce corporations into the equation:

    Addressed why this is a big potential problem (let alone in a country where the gap between rhetoric and reality is already quite high) in the link below, and also referenced your earlier CATO post in a brief paragraph therein, and took issue with it.

    Working on a longer analysis piece regarding, because I think it is an important decision, and don’t at all think the underlying support for your piece is correct; namely, that “corporate” speech is merely only the “corporate mechanism for coordinating” the “exercise” of individual (yes, individual?) speech, and only “nominally” at that — with the rest of the part that is not being nominally targeted, presumably (or at least for it to make sense), being the actual speech which is only being “coordinated” by the corporate mechanism.

    I don’t think this is correct at all — particularly the nominally part. At very best, it is tautological.

    At any rate, a rather succinct practical and legal analysis as to why Citizens is deeply flawed, incorrectly reasoned, and extremely problematic — including a look (in addition, briefly, to yours) at R. Pilon’s explanation of it.

    Feel free to point out flaws, things I’ve overlooked, etc. or things you disagree with. If any.

    By the way, I also think Matt above gets to at least some of the elemental truth of the matter; particularly in recognizing the fact that corporate speech is often going to be interested speech in a particularly designed way, and that advertising, or supportive advocacy (or, as he puts it, bullshit) is effective, and by “effective” that means it influences the process by definition. And most of the time it is reasonable to assume that it will influence the process in what is the corporations best interests, not necessarily individuals’ best interests, which makes this not simply an almost nominally relevant mechanism for simply coordinating what is true (or individual) speech.

    The analysis maybe gets a bit more complicated when it comes to ideologically created corporate entities (and longer) but it’s not as different from the one above as one might think.

  • 13 Not Sure I Agree // Feb 4, 2010 at 3:58 am

    I’m a little surprised at this statement:

    I just have trouble wrapping my head around the view that combines these two beliefs: (1) The wisdom of the people, on the whole, justifies not just the installation of Candidate A over Candidate B, but a whole array of coercive state policies, and also (2) We’re really easily led, and will sell our firstborn to Altria if a slick ad says to. It seems strange for both those things to be true.

    I gently suggest giving it some further thought. Putting aside the obvious hyperbole, all mankind is based upon this dual reality and friction, and in fact it probably can not be any other way.

    Our decisions must ultimately be our own, if we believe in a free society, and thus we must have faith in them (what else can be the best arbiter, even if that mass arbiter is often wrong according to the cogent reasoning of some); but that does not mean we do not make mistakes (obviously) or that we are not mislead, or that rhetoric or propaganda or even misrepresentations slickly packaged have no or only insignificant impact, or that we do not sometimes do wrong things, including, sometimes, unknowingly, and others times, perhaps at least in hindsight “knowingly.”

    It is almost as if you want to pinpoint mankind into one of two absolute extremes, neither of which man can fully fit into anyway; and then decide that we nevertheless must because the basic humanness of us is sometimes inconsistent or simply wrong.

    But since you know we can not fully fit one image or the other, then we must have partial realizations of both. Not only is it not “strange,” we could not be human, and have it any other way.

    Jacob Wintersmith:

    most of the arguments against giving corporations the right to political speech work even better as arguments against giving ‘dumb’ people the right to vote.

    Putting aside even the problematical subjective and pejorative nature of such determinations; No, they don’t. Not even remotely. Or at least, not knowing every argument that someone somewhere in America has made in protest of Citizens, not the relevant ones.

  • 14 sam // Feb 4, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    “(1) The wisdom of the people, on the whole, justifies not just the installation of Candidate A over Candidate B, but a whole array of coercive state policies, and also (2) We’re really easily led, and will sell our firstborn to Altria if a slick ad says to. ”

    That might be called the “progressive” slant. What might the, for lack of a better word, “conservative” slant be? Maybe something like:

    (1) The people are continuously duped by liberal newspapers, academics, and Hollywood movies to prefer the installation of liberal candidates over conservative candidates, and thus a whole array of coercive state policies; and also (2) The people are not easily duped, and will not sell their firstborn to Altria if a slick ad says to.

  • 15 Joseph Steinberg // Feb 4, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    Firstly, I thought the decision far too broad for the facts.

    Secondly, given the facts, I thought the salient detail was the notion of a 30-day space within which citizens have the privilege to deliberate on the election without harangue. I would actually flip the libertarian’s contention. If all corporations deserve a chance to “speak”, it’s ludicrous to distinguish between media and media corporations. Well. outlaw all coverage or comment of elections at the 30-day mark. Judges can clear courts, there are regulations concerning when the gallery is open, and the WH is mostly off-limits compared to 19th Century standards. Citizens should have to try to find out about candidates, and candidates should have to make an effort to defend themselves. For even more fun, yank the franking privileges, too. Along with limits on donations, that should advance the cause of sortition or random balloting a long way.

    I like competition and honest toil. If you want to be my shill in DC, you need to get on your knees…

  • 16 Scott P. // Feb 5, 2010 at 10:50 am

    Your paradox is in fact not paradoxical. Let’s say the people in their infinite wisdom see the Altria candidate for what he truly is and he ends up with only a measly 5% chance of winning the election.

    So Altria simply runs a candidate in all 435 house races. 5% of 435 is about 20. So they now have 20 seats in the House. Once in the house, they have the power of incumbency, but let’s be very generous and say that instead of the 90+% chance incumbents have, their chances of being re-elected are only 50/50. So 10 candidates are voted out of office. Meanwhile, however, Altria runs candidates in the other 415 races, win 5%, and get another 20 seats. So now they have 30. You can take the math as far into the future as you want, but the result is that Altria will end up controlling a hefty chunk of the House.

  • 17 dino // Feb 5, 2010 at 10:56 am

    I agree with Doug. Anything that increases the supply of those inane commercials is bad.

  • 18 example // Feb 5, 2010 at 11:09 am

    How is that inconsistent? If you think voters are stupid and easily lead, then democracy is fragile and people needs to be protected from being controlled by corporations.

    Are you saying that if we think that democracy is fragile, and voters are that we must also think that it would be improved by being run by corporations seeking to maximize their profit (and for the benefit of their directors and CEO?)

    Obviously, that’s not the case.

    As for replacing it with something else, I think the Churchill quote “The worst form of government except for all the rest” makes sense. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked and guided by not allowing self-interested wealthy parties and foreign governments to control the process.

  • 19 Dave // Feb 5, 2010 at 11:36 am

    Of course (1) and (2) are not contradictory so it is at least possible to hold them together. There are alternatives to placing power in the wisdom of the people no matter how minute and imperfect that wisdom. For instance, kings, dictators (benevolent or otherwise), aristocracy, legislatures, judiciaries, or some sort of leviathon. All of these things are, plausibly, worse options than the deeply imperfect and flawed wisdom of the people.

    I think you probably know that. While there is no contradiction in holding (1) and (2) I see a problem. Governments use coercive force in a way that is supposed to be justified. In democracies, this justification comes from popular mandate. But if people are susceptible in the way (2) suggests, then perhaps the coercive powers granted to democratic governments are illegitimate. Is this a case for some form of anarchy?

  • 20 Mark Dorroh // Feb 5, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    So far as the intrinsic value of democracy goes, I believe Winston Churchill got it right when he said that it is the worst form of government except for all the others which have been tried from time to time. It’s a messy, noisy process which produces all sorts of good and bad outcomes … just like life itself. So suck it up and deal.

  • 21 Pithlord // Feb 5, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    We can solve the dilemmas of democracy easily. Just deny people who make lame arguments like “corporations aren’t people, so we can freely censor them” the right to vote.

  • 22 finzent // Feb 6, 2010 at 10:52 am

    I think anybody who wants to restrict other peoples’ right to vote for whatever reason should be denied the right to vote.

    Oh, wait…

  • 23 John G. Spragge // Feb 6, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    I love it when political debate gets surreal. A corporation actually consists of a set of papers, possibly with the addition of an embossing seal. I certainly support giving collections of papers and embossing machines all the free speech they can possibly use. I feel pretty confident that we’ll never hear from an actual corporation.

    The “speech” that comes from corporations actually comes from individuals with authority to write cheques on behalf of the corporations. The cheques they write come from assets that belong to the profit participants in the corporation. In some cases, the decision makers clearly have the consent of the principals to speak politically on their behalf; in other cases, such as those involving pension funds, they quite clearly do not.

  • 24 UserGoogol // Feb 8, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    The main reason why banning stupid people from voting is a bad idea is because government cannot be trusted to determine which people are stupid. It is all too easy for the appropriate test to be biased in a way which skews towards certain demographics or certain policy stances, as is shown by actual historical events. Aside from that, banning stupid people from voting is not an inherently bad idea. And in a sense, we already do it for the more extreme cases since children and (in most states) the developmentally disabled are legally prevented from voting.

    Restricting corporations from engaging in speech isn’t as risky for the same arguments people have been making, the humans themselves are free to engage in speech, it’s just that when they form government chartered organizations those organizations are restricted.

  • 25 Not Sure I Agree // Feb 10, 2010 at 2:16 am

    John G. Spragge,

    Perhaps this was the unexpressed but actual thinking of the Supreme Court itself (and Julian somewhat.)

    We have restrictions on campaign expenditures by those individuals, do we not?

    So if ‘corporations’ don’t speak, then aren’t corporations just a way to render limitations by individuals directly on behalf of a candidate, invalid.

    But if those limitations on individuals have been recognized as constitutionally valid (and they have), then it is wildly inconsistent to say that corporations can spend what they want, and then defend that against all of the many sensible comments made here, by saying corporations “don’t speak” only individuals do.

  • 26 Donkasaurus Post » Blog Archive » The Observation that Was too Scathing for Maureen Dowd to Handle // Feb 10, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    [...] One on a subject that has been occasionally covered; the undue influence of corporations now, in addition to everything else, upon our election process in the wake of the abysmal decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. (Some more analysis on Citizens that misses the point and paints a false paradox, with good commentar…). [...]

  • 27 Donkasaurus Post » Blog Archive » Title // Feb 10, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    [...] One on a subject that has been occasionally covered; the undue influence of corporations now, in addition to everything else, upon our election process in the wake of the abysmal decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. (Some more analysis on Citizens that misses the point and paints a false paradox, with good commentar…). [...]

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