More free speech is happening right now in America than ever before. Yet free speech is under attack in a way that no one is talking about.
The future of the Republic depends on the conversation between elected representatives and their constituents. That conversation is getting drowned out by outside interests who spend tons of money to sway elections in districts where they don’t live.
The sacred conversation between voters and their representatives is getting polluted with outside noise bought with outside money.
Fixing this can be really simple. But to talk about the solution, I need to talk to you about my hometown.
As many of you reading this know, I’ve spent most of my life in Marietta, Georgia, which falls within Georgia’s sixth Congressional district. As of one year ago this month, it is home to the most expensive Congressional race in American history.
This was a race between two well-funded, terrible candidates. Republicans ran Karen Handel, who had recently run for both governor and then Senate, but failed to win either primary. Handel didn’t even bother showing up to a Republican town hall debate. Why should she? The people she needed to impress weren’t there; they were all in Washington. Democrats ran Jon Ossoff, who didn’t even live in the district and inflated his resume to mislead about his foreign policy credentials.
It’s hard to overstate how well-funded the Ossoff campaign was. Democrats saw this as the first drop in their blue wave. The #resistance’s energy – and a whole lot of their money – went to propelling Ossoff to victory. Doing so, they said, would “send a message” to Trump. (Sorry, Democrats, Trump doesn’t care abut your messages. He’s leaving your texts on read. Ouch.)
The Democratic Party funneled $18 million to the Ossoff campaign, and outside groups ponied up another $8 million. With all that money, it’s astounding that no one bothered to rent him an apartment inside the district.
In fact, Ossoff might have lost by having too much money. The DNC orchestrated so much door-knocking and phone-banking that a local cottage industry emerged, of neighbors making yard signs that said “Get your Ossoff my lawn.” Only 14% of his itemized donations came from within the state, and even less came from within the district. He invited other people to tell us how to vote, and it backfired spectacularly.
This isn’t far off from what happened in the 2016 presidential race. We had two monumentally unpopular candidates inflicted upon us with record-breaking amounts of money, and the Democrat who had more money LOST because voters realized they were a fraud.
Selfishly, I’m tempted to let Democrats continue wasting millions of dollars on races they lose. But when we consider the whole picture, it’s clear that this system gives no one a good return on their investment. Georgia Six elected Karen Handel, and I would guess that not a single person watching this could name a piece of legislation that she wrote or sponsored. Both sides are spending exorbitantly and getting terrible outcomes. This will keep happening and it will sever the flimsy link between the members of Congress and their constituents.
Our representative democracy accounts for nothing if the right to free speech is not married to the right to be heard by your elected officials. We can speak freely to them, but thanks to outside cash, they can afford not to listen. That needs to change.
I propose the following solution: Require any political advertising bought with outside money to carry a label saying so. Any yard sign funded by outside cash would declare not only the candidate’s last name, but also where the money came from. Every PAC-funded commercial would require a banner running across the bottom of the screen, stating the sources of the money. This could be as simple as “The funding for this ad came from outside the district” or as detailed as “The funding for this ad came from donors in [insert locations here].” No matter the exact wording, the message is clear: Someone else spent money on this to tell you how to vote. Every pamphlet, every radio ad, every parade float funded by people outside the district should have a statement making that clear to voters.
This mandates honesty without restricting speech. Any party or PAC can still buy up all the advertising they want. All they have to do is tell us who they are and where they got the money. All of us consume a media diet, and just like with a food diet, we deserve the right to know what this diet contains.
This protects the sanctity of the conversation between the electORS and the elecTED – and it’s entirely a bipartisan proposal. Moscow shouldn’t be telling us how to vote, and Marin County shouldn’t either.
We might take this a step further and ban speechwriters. If you can’t sell your vote, you shouldn’t be able to sell your voice. No one should be creating a fake persona with someone else’s money. No student is allowed to take another person’s words and pass it off as their own, but we allow it from our politicians. In fact, we have come to expect it from them.
The immediate reaction to a law like this one could very well be a Supreme Court challenge. To which, I say bring it on: I invite anyone in America to stand in front of those 9 justices and say, “I should be allowed to interfere in an election in a place where I don’t live.”
This treatment I’m proposing has serious side effects.
First of all, it turns every incumbent into a raging capitalist. If your reelection fund must come from your district (if you want it to go without the warning label), you need people in your district to donate money. That means you need them to have money, and you need them to see value in your work. You’re now answering to a decidedly non-wonky set of bosses. Candidates would be forced to spend more time talking to their neighbors and less time talking to external donors.
The second side effect is perhaps our society’s best chance at draining that metaphorical swamp. (We have a heat index of 107 today, so if anyone wants to drain the literal swamp, too, please go right ahead.) Anyway. Right now, every single elected Republican knows that if they oppose Paul Ryan consistently and aggressively, the party will find someone to primary them and then bankroll that challenger to victory. Democrats do it to, and that doesn’t make it okay. If we force these people to contain their fundraising and campaign within their districts, the parties are far less able to swoop in and oust someone they don’t like. The party’s money is less powerful because it carries the label that says “hey, we’re a bunch of people you don’t know, and this is how we’d like you to vote.”
The disproportionate influence of outside money in politics allows the candidates to pick the voters instead of the voters picking the candidates. They pick us – we need to pick them. When that happens, no one with real local support would have to be afraid of the party.
But they would have to be afraid of a larger field of candidates – and that’s not a bug in this proposal; it’s a feature. Everyone wonders why good people don’t run – in part, it’s because they can’t be heard over the noise created by outside money. But that’s now how it’s supposed to be: The Constitution made the barriers to entry really low: All anyone has to do is be 25 years old and solicit signatures in support of their candidacy to be added to the ballot. And yet, we get a crop of people with a lower approval rating than Nickelback.
If we want to make elected representatives truly represent us, we must stop them from passing off outside money as grassroots support. Our freedoms do not protect themselves. We must demand a free and clear conversation with our elected representatives.