The U.S. Supreme Court decision today green-lighting unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns (and labor, too, to the extent that America still has any) does one of two things, or maybe both. It (1) shreds the distinctions made in the law between free speech — the First Amendment idea that we can say what we think without fear from the government — and buying airtime so you can bombard the public with your message. And it (2) removes the tissue wrapping from the fiction that the distinctions made in the law are actually enforceable in practice (let alone actually enforced in practice).

So now we confront the reality: Big Money is at the center of the American political system, and the right and the left. It owns both political parties, in whole or part. (How else to explain Max Baucus?) The only answer to it — I started to say alternative to it, but there’s no way of eliminating Big Money’s power, only of off-setting it), is to offer a “clean money” option to candidates who agree not to take Big Money’s money. That means public financing of the kind North Carolina currently offers to judicial candidates and candidates for a few statewide offices (Auditor, Insurance Commissioner, Schools Superintendent).

Here’s Bob Hall’s take. He’s our state’s foremost voice on cleaning up government:

Today’s distressing, but predictable decision is another step by the U.S. Supreme Court to turn public elections into private auctions. We already see how wealthy interests can distort the debates over health care, energy and financial reform; we don’t need corporations to have more ability to intimidate lawmakers with the threat of massive spending in their elections.

The Court’s decision encourages a ‘pay to play” system and treats common-sense regulation of the flow of money in politics as a restriction on free speech. It is not: Previous court decisions said the content of speech is protected from censorship, but the financing of a political message must follow certain rules to protect the integrity of the election process.

The majority on this Court disagrees and intends to give more power to wealthy corporations, foreign or domestic, non-profit or for-profit, even if their spending undermines the chance for a fair election or fair debate on a policy matter. It’s an astonishing decision in its boldness and ambitious reach.

Regulation of private money in politics has gotten much more difficult. The decision dramatizes the need for a new approach to challenge the arms race in political fundraising and spending. It points to the importance of creating an alternative stream of clean money through a public financing option for candidates who abide by a set of public-trust standards. Public financing gives candidates the ability to compete and encourages them to be accountable to voters, not wealthy narrow interests. As the regulation of large wealthy interests becomes more impossible, it becomes more necessary to boost the power of small donors and voters through voluntary Voter-Owned Election programs.

Bob Hall

Democracy North Carolina