A newspaper will make you sign your name to a letter-to-the-editor so that you take ownership of the content and consequences of your 250-word rant against the injustices of the age. But when billionaire oil and gas tycoons sign their names to $250 million campaign donations, you and I have no right to know what favors their favoritism might have bought, or even who they are.
Or so says Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. In a recent Washington Post op-ed warning of "the dangers disclosure can pose to free speech," McConnell turns democracy on its head when he writes of the "alarming harassment and intimidation" being waged by the Obama administration in its attempt "to single out its critics" by using the FCC, IRS, SEC and even the Department of Health and Human Services as partisan enforcers to "silence" those who support causes and positions different from its own.
Gracious. You'd think from the frenzied tone of McConnell's urgent admonition that Democrats had proposed using the NSA to spy on Republicans without FISA Court warrants, or to rendition them off to some secret prison where Moveon.org operatives would water-board Republicans in violation of the Geneva Convention into telling all they knew about Karl Rove's evil designs over at Crossroads GPS. You'd never suspect from what McConnell has to say that what Democratic proponents of a federal Disclose Act really have in mind is the seditious idea that million-dollar campaign donors should be publicly accountable just like everyone else.
It's true, concedes McConnell, just as Post columnist Ruth Marcus says, that he introduced a constitutional amendment in 1987 to put spending limits on self-funded millionaires. But that was then and this is now and, besides, everyone is entitled to make a mistake.
The punitive boycotts of their businesses that reactionary billionaires might face if the public caught wind they were bankrolling unpopular politicians or causes is no different, argues McConnell (ludicrously) from the chilling effect on political activity that groups like the NAACP endured during the Jim Crow 1950s, when the State of Alabama demanded the civil rights group make public its membership list, presumably so that local Ku Klux Klansmen could more easily target NAACP members for nailing to some tree.
McConnell's backward ideas about free speech are no less radical than the peculiar ideas he has about governing, learned no doubt as a young lad sitting at the knees of those white-suited Kentucky Colonels while they sipped their bourbons and mint juleps and sneered at the unwashed masses as they rocked on their plantation's front porches.
For we already know that McConnell's response to the Republican Party's loss of the White House and its shrinkage in the US Senate to just 40 members was to use the GOP's dwindling minority to vacate the verdict of two national elections by doing everything in their power to prevent the Democrat's duly-elected national majority from governing.
As the New York Times reported in 2010, even before President Obama took office, McConnell had a strategy for his party: "Use his extensive knowledge of Senate procedure to slow things down, take advantage of the difficulties Democrats would have in governing and deny Democrats any Republican support on big legislation."
On nearly every major issue, McConnell used the Senate filibuster to essentially institutionalize minority rule by holding Republican defections "to somewhere between minimal and nonexistent," says the Times. This allowed McConnell "to slow the Democratic agenda if not defeat aspects of it."
When Democrats refused to capitulate to Republican obstructionism, McConnell accused them of "being inflexible," says the Times. And when Democrats cleverly found ways around McConnell's procedural obstacles he accused them of "arrogantly circumventing the American people."
That is what McConnell did when President Obama broke a GOP blockade and appointed a director of the Consumer Financial Protection Board Republicans were determined to keep vacant after being unable to (democratically) prevent the agency from being created in the first place.
According to McConnell's imperious presumptions, the Republican minority has the right to unilaterally overrule the decision of the duly-elected President of the United States and both houses of Congress by preventing a consumer protection bureau created to protect the American people against Wall Street abuses from doing its work. Therefore, according to McConnell, when the President staffs the agency so it can do the job Congress has authorized it to do, it's somehow the President who has "arrogantly circumvented" the Constitution and the American people.
"Seriously?" asks an incredulous James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly. "This kind of thing needs to be called out for what it is: nonsense."
We can't yet know the full consequence of McConnell's obstructionism. But one result we do know is that Republicans may lose a once safe seat in the Senate after Maine Senator Olympia Snowe shook the political establishment last February by announcing she would be retiring after this term. The cover story was that Snowe was fed up with "partisanship" in general. But Snowe isn't quitting because "partisanship" in Congress had become too much for her. She's quitting because the Republican Party has.
As her cousin, Georgia Chomas, said: social conservatives and Tea Party activists had been hounding Snowe at her home in Maine while party leaders in Washington had been ignoring the issues she cared most about. "There was a constant, constant struggle to accommodate everyone, and a lot of pressure on her from the extreme right," said Chomas, "And she just can't go there."
What we have with McConnell's obscene definition of "free speech" is not a mechanism by which a free people governs itself but rather an imagined privilege for right wing billionaires to manipulate the political process behind the scenes, in secret, and outside the bounds of customary disclosure and accountability. It is another example of reactionary elements using the rights guaranteed to them by our liberal democracy to undermine the liberal democratic regime itself.
A better understanding of free speech and why it is valued "as a method of attaining moral and political truth" is provided by Walter Lippmann. In his Essays in the Public Philosophy, Lippmann lists free speech among those "traditions of civility" which support self-government itself. But it is not just any speech that Lippmann defends, or which the Founding Fathers enshrined in our First Amendment, but speech "conceived as the means to a confrontation of opinion."
The classic defense of freedom of speech comes from John Milton who, in 1644's Areopagitica, asks; "Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"
But it is a free and open encounter, says Lippmann in his typically high-minded way, that must never be treated "as a trial of strength" but rather as "a means of elucidation."
In his wonderful new book, Our Divided Political Heart, E.J. Dionne, Jr., devotes an entire chapter to the idea that America is "One Nation, Conceived in Argument."
But for speech to be truly "free" it must also be open to rebuttal and refutation, says Lippmann, for when genuine debate is lacking freedom of speech does not work since "unrestricted utterance leads to the degradation of opinion."
It is sophistry, says Lippmann, "to pretend that in a free country a man has some sort of inalienable or constitutional right to deceive his fellow men. There is no more right to deceive than there is a right to swindle, to cheat, or to pick pockets."
But that is exactly what many conservatives do claim today when they insist on the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which is why its elimination has been so destructive of the kind of debate Lippmann says is central to the proper working of democracies.
The discarding of the long-standing requirement that access to the public's airwaves meant giving equal time to opposing points of view, gives to demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and (fill in the name of your favorite "leftist" broadcaster here) three or four hours of uninterrupted air time each day to inject their unchallenged poison directly into our politics, where as Lippmann says the "chaff of silliness, baseness and deception" can become so "voluminous" that it "submerges the kernels of truth" and produces such "frivolity" and "mischief" that free speech can no longer be preserved against those who "demand for a restoration of order or of decency."
If there is a dividing line between liberty and license, says Lippmann, "it is where freedom of speech is no longer respected as a procedure of the truth and becomes the unrestricted right to exploit the ignorance and incite the passions of the people. Then freedom is such a hullabaloo of sophistry, propaganda, special pleading, lobbying and salesmanship that it is difficult to remember why freedom of speech is worth the pain and trouble of defending it."
Fabrications and falsehoods are not expressions of freedom but applications of brute force. And where truth is unable to confront error in a live debate - as it cannot do on conservative talk radio unlimited by the Fairness Doctrine or in the negative advertising purchased by the billionaires McConnell means to keep nameless and faceless -- then "some regulation is necessary" in order to reestablish that element of "confrontation" upon which the "right" to free speech is predicated, says Lippmann.
Conservatives once swore by the magical properties of "competition." Yet, how characteristic of Mitch McConnell that his distorted view of political speech is so perfectly aligned with the diseased view he has of the American Republic he hopes to create, one in which a cabal of wealthy oligarchs are given a blank check in the name of "freedom" to deploy their over-sized financial resources in order to suffocate whatever democratic impulses still beat in America today.