Did I hear you say that there must be a catch?Everywhere I go, everywhere I look, everything I read about our contemporary political structure in the U.S. screams one thing to me:
Somehow, we have to get the money out of the system.
Our system is inherently corrupt. If you want to run for office and win in the U.S., you need a great deal of money; if you're in office and you want to stay there -- and nearly everybody does; being an elected official in the U.S. is a fabulous gig, about as far from actually working for a living as anyone can imagine -- you need even more. None of this money necessarily goes into your own personal pockets, but you need it anyway, to pay for campaign costs -- which generally boil down to, paying for ad time on TV and radio, and paying for ad space in newspapers. (There are other expenses involved in running a campaign, but I am fairly sure that most campaign dollars go directly to the media for advertising.)
The simplest thing to do would be to straight up ban political advertising. It's a lovely idea; who among us would truly miss all of those black-background, ominously scored attack ads declaring that "Dodd Kramer kicks puppies and wants the American serviceman to go into combat barefoot" or "Sidney Campos-Waite has voted eighteen times to allow vampires to prey on the elderly residents of nursing homes throughout America"?
A simple and across the board ban on political ads would be the most effective campaign finance reform imaginable. In addition to vastly increasing the aesthetics of television during election season, it would pretty much shut down the largest legitimate cash portal in American elective politics. Take advertising costs out of the campaign equation, and suddenly politicians don't need all that much money at all. Which means they have no justification for soliciting, or receiving, all that much money at all... which makes it much harder to hide the bribes, and also denies those with more money to give from having greater access and influence than those who aren't as affluent.
There are, of course, a couple of problems with this. First, the most pragmatic one: media owners accustomed to seeing billions of dollars in PAC money funneling into their TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers during election years will scream bloody murder if anyone tries to take that money away from them. I honestly couldn't care less, but these are people of influence, and they will fight hard to keep it.
Second, and of much more concern to me -- you run into a little trouble with Amendment I of the U.S. Constitution -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Constitutional scholars (many of them on the payrolls of folks who directly benefit from our current campaign finance structure, but never mind, they may be corrupt but their analysis is still inarguable) say that "freedom of speech" of course includes the ability to buy as much airtime as one wants, with which to state any viewpoint that one desires. Therefore, any law that would keep any American citizen (say, a political candidate, or a sitting elected official) from spending as much money as they feel like on television spots, radio ads, and newspaper blurbs would be by definition unConstitutional.
As I say, that analysis is inarguable, but I still like my idea, so I will submit the following thought for consideration: the FCC is un-Constitutional. It dictates what can and cannot be broadcast via electronic media already, generally following some fairly subjective 'community standards' concepts regarding decency and proprietry and protecting the children and a lot of other stuff that sounds great, but isn't mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.
It is a curious thing about America, and Americans -- when something bothers us deeply, we will go straight to the Constitution, search it exhaustively for something that prohibits whatever it is that we dislike, and then go all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, to have that thing that offends us stricken down on Constitutional grounds. And if we can't find anything in the Constitution that buttresses our righteous outrage, then we start talking about 'common decency' and 'natural laws' and, you know, protecting the children.
On the other hand, if a law is enacted that doesn't bother us much, or that, in fact, most people seem to agree is a reasonably good idea, like the law establishing the Federal Communication Commission's authority over broadcasting content, we kind of shrug and move on. After all, there have to be rules. If we allowed TV stations to broadcast any kind of programming at all, without regulation (as the phrase 'freedom of speech' would seem to state is necessary), well, there would be hot chicks making out with each other 24/7 on nearly every channel, with a minority half dozen stations broadcasting The PTL Club and reruns of The Oral Roberts Power of Prayer Hour constantly to counter program.
And, you know, that would be bad.
Nonetheless, it seems to me to be fairly inarguable that government regulation of broadcasting content is un-Constitutional... provided, of course, that one defines broadcasting content as falling within the parameters of 'free speech', which I certainly think it should, as I tend to believe in the broadest possible interpretation of 'free speech'. (I'm not a big fan of our Constitution; any document that enshrines slavery and guarantees all religions a free ride is seriously flawed and badly needs a rewrite... but that's an entry for another time, perhaps. I am a big fan of free speech, though.)
So, it seems to me that if we can somehow justify government regulation of broadcast content, then we can equally justify modifying those regulations to prohibit political advertising. And if we have to equate political advertising to obscenity in order to pull this off, well, that's okay by me, too. In fact, I'd regard that as a little bonus.
Of course, without television, radio, and newspaper ads, how will people know who to vote for, or even who's running in upcoming elections? Well, here's an idea: why don't we let the people who really want to vote in elections do a little work to find out who the candidates are and what the candidates stand for? Voting is a right, of course, but I've never been inclined to think it should be one that is effortless. It strikes me that people who are politically aware will continue to apprise themselves of when elections are, who is running, and which candidate they like better. People who vote on the basis of attack ads strike me as the kind of voter our system really doesn't need; these are the sorts of people who vote for national embarrassments like Ginny Brown-Waite, Newt Gingrich, Katherine Harris and Tom DeLay.
And that other guy... what's his name... oh, yeah, George W. Bush. Although he's pretty much an international embarrassment.
This is one way to do it, within our current structure of media and campaign policy. Rule all political advertisment over broadcast media to be tantamount to obscene, and make people go out on the Internet to each candidate's website to determine who is running for what office and how they feel about various issues. This strikes me as workable, practical, and reasonable, and it's just as good a way to run elections (actually, I think it's much better, and far more civil) than our current system of essentially keeping the electorate misinformed with slanted, lying attack ads.
The other way to do it would be to tear down the broadcast media establishment from the ground up. I've always found it exasperating when people speak of advertising as 'free speech'; it isn't free, you have to pay for it, which means there is no level playing field involved, and the loudest voices will be the ones with the most money behind them. But advertising is what fuels our 'free' broadcast media (although nearly everyone I know pays for their TV nowadays anyway, through their cable provider). If we want 'free' entertainment on our TV and radio, we have to deal with commercials, because sponsors pay for it so we don't have to.
Ever since I first had the concept of 'least objectional programming' explained to me, which shows that the vast majority of TV viewers watch television so habitually and constantly that TV programmers need not put on shows that are actually good, but merely less objectionable than whatever else is on the air, because most people will not turn their TVs off as long as they are conscious and in the same room with them, I have thought there was something horribly wrong with this whole set up. We are making it much too easy for our citizenry to sedate itself with broadcast pablum.
The model I myself came up with, twenty years ago, when the 'least objectionable programming' concept was first made known to me, was to shut down broadcast TV entirely. What had been designed as 'television shows' could be put on videotape (nowadays, DVD) and people could go to a video store and pick and choose what they wanted to watch. This would, at least, require some effort and force people to use some level of judgement in what they watched, and since the model would be entirely driven by rental fees, would not require any advertisement (and personally, I'd love to see laws banning ads on videotapes, DVDs, and in movie theaters; again, if you're paying for it, it's not 'free speech'; if I'm paying to watch something, I think I have a right to decide what content gets included).
Just recently, we've started to see this model come to life, as favorite TV shows have started to immediately be collected on DVD and offered for sale to private collectors. This certainly doesn't spell the death of broadcast television or the electronic advertising industry in general; both establishments have far too much money (and therefore, influence) to go down that easily, and will most likely be with us always, or at least until there is some enormous and at this point unimaginable paradigm shift in communications technology. Nonetheless, I would be entirely in favor of absolute freedom of speech in all media, with no government regulation whatsoever, if there was no immediately accessible broadcast media. If we all had to walk down to Hollywood Video to pick out our Hot Chicks Making Out (or our PTL Club) installment for the evening, then I don't think we would need any kind of paternalistic oversight.
However, the broadcast media, and the utterly pernicious advertising industry, aren't going anywhere anytime soon. That being the case, the FCC is most likely a better idea than absolute unfettered chaos on the airwaves, and since the FCC does regulate broadcast content, which already abridges 'freedom of speech' in the electronic media, then, well, I say, let's put it to work for us cleaning up politics. Ban political advertising as 'unwelcome content by national community standards', take the cash out of the campaign system, and we will at least make the Jack Abramoffs of the future work a lot harder to hide their bribes.