On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the first American of black African descent to don the uniform of a Major League Baseball team. While the future Hall of Fame player didn’t help his team much that game – he failed to get a hit – he did that day change the game forever. Robinson, a sadly necessary American hero, famously broke what is often referred to as the “Color Line” in American baseball.
Today, our democracy has a similar line, a “Money Line”, and this line is in dire need of breaking.
Now, in one important sense, we all have equal access to our democracy – on election day. But as I’ve written before, democracy does not begin and end on election day. On the contrary, election day is but the culmination of the 364 previous days during which the hard work of democracy actually happens. Indeed democracy occurs every day, in many different forms, through the exercise of our sacred, constitutionally protected right to free speech. And this right, as with all of our rights, is bestowed upon us equally, in accordance with the fundamental assumption of democracy – that, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in our Declaration of Independence, we are all created equal.
Thus, if we analogize democracy to baseball, our ability to speak correlates to a baseball player’s ability to step onto the field. In this sense, when we are silenced, we are prevented from stepping onto the field of democracy.
But alas, speech, that indispensable precondition of democracy, is a complex concept. It is much more than just the utterance of vibrations from one’s oral cavity. It is the wearing of a ribbon, it is the flying of a flag, it is any number of limitless symbolic gestures. Speech is, in a word, communication. And the form of such communication is only limited by the human imagination. As such, certain actions, call them speech-acts, that are undoubtedly speech, are often also undoubtedly other things. In extremely limited circumstances, the speech element itself of a speech-act can be restricted (think shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater). And in other limited circumstances, when the non-speech element of a speech-act involves an action that is or can be deleterious, we as a society are confronted with the challenge of balancing the speech-value of the entire speech-act against the potentially harmful consequences of its non-speech elements. Thus under certain very limited circumstances where the inimical effects of a speech-act are deemed to outweigh its speech-value, the speech-act may be properly regulated. These balancing maneuvers are the primary concern of the law of free speech.
In this regard, money most certainly is speech. Or perhaps more precisely, the act of spending money is one kind of speech-act. And this kind of speech-act contains a unique peculiarity that demands enhanced scrutiny. For money is the great commodifier. When we spend money, we necessarily purchase something, often many things, both explicit and implicit. If, for example, a person purchases $100,000 worth of television advertising attacking the opponent of an incumbent member of Congress, that person most obviously purchases time on our televisions. But less obviously, that person also purchases a number of other things, including a larger voice than most of us can afford as well as access to the incumbent member of Congress that is not available to the general public. In this way, the speech manifold of money allows those with more money to participate in democracy, legitimately and illegitimately, on a level that is entirely inaccessible to the overwhelming majority of citizens.
American law has recognized this problem of the corrupting influence of money on politics for over 100 years. Yet due to two relatively recent (1976 and 2010) Supreme Court decisions, it is now unconstitutional to limit the amount of money spent on political (so-called) independent expenditures (for individuals, Buckley v. Valeo, and for corporations and unions, Citizens United v. FEC).
As a result of this breakdown of law regulating political expenditures, a “Money Line” in American democracy has been drawn. On the one side sits the monied citizens, David and Charles Koch, Sheldon Adelson, George Soros, who partake in the Big Leagues of democracy. On the other side sits the rest of us, relegated to the stands. All the while the egalitarian foundation of our democracy disintegrates, as Jefferson’s Declaration, that we are all created equal, is replaced by Orwell’s maxim, that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Which brings us back to Jackie Robinson. His breaking of baseball’s Color Line was a general achievement for the game itself, not for any single team. Similarly, a shattering of the Money Line would be an achievement for democracy itself, not for any single political party. Accordingly, the Money Line should be a non-partisan issue that even the most diametrically opposed ideologues should be able to rally against. But just like baseball’s Color Line, democracy’s Money Line is not an explicit rule. It cannot be found in any law or regulation. It is an implication, an understanding, a manipulation of otherwise innocuous-seeming adornments. In baseball, baleful racism was concealed under the veil of freedom of contract. In government, sinister plutocracy is wrapped in the husk of freedom of speech. As a result, change of any non-trivial import is notably arduous. The efforts of no one individual will suffice. For while Jackie Robinson is singly credited with breaking the Color Line, his efforts, although heroic, were but the last drop in the bucket previously filled with the sweat and blood of countless others, from the thousands of Negro League baseball players to the armies of civil rights activists. In the same way, breaking the Money Line won’t happen overnight and will require massive effort from a great many citizens.
But the first step of any problem is acknowledgment. If you are frustrated with your government, if you feel like you have no say, perhaps you are sitting on the wrong side of the Money Line of American democracy. In which case, I implore you to engage this problem. Consider the possibility of publicly financed elections and a constitutional amendment to ensure the integrity of our democracy. Look at the work of and get involved in grassroots organizations dedicated to the return of government to the people, such as Rootstrikers, Wolf PAC and The Coffee Party USA.
Most importantly, refuse to let your voice be consigned to the back stage of democracy.