Three Campaign Finance Lessons from Dave Brat’s Victory

Two weeks ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on whether to amend the First Amendment in response to Citizens United and other campaign finance decisions that allegedly allow the rich to “buy” elections and prevent “ordinary” Americans from being heard. (You can read my recent op-ed in Breitbart about the proposed amendment here.)

Last week, a candidate who was funded by a lot of those rich people, Virginia Republican Eric Cantor, lost a primary election to a little-known college professor, Dave Brat, who was elected by many of the people who allegedly are never heard in elections today. Cantor had a 26 to 1 cash advantage over Brat, raising around $5 million to Brat’s roughly $200,000. Three hundred seventy-seven PACs supported Cantor. None supported Brat.

Supporters of campaign finance laws will ignore the implications of Cantor’s loss, but if you care about freedom of speech, you shouldn’t join them. Here are three lessons we can learn from this episode:

1. Money doesn’t “buy” elections

Google the phrase “buying elections” sometime. I got about 23 million hits. Whether they all claim that campaign spending “buys” elections or not, the fact is, this claim is made constantly. But it’s nonsense. What money buys during an election is speech — ads on radio and television, billboards, signs, mailers, speeches and the like. Candidates and those who support them aren’t buying anyone’s votes with all that money, they are trying to convince people to vote for them. Money in elections is a tool of persuasion. You may think it’s an effort to persuade voters to elect the wrong people — I often do — but the fact is, the voters are making the ultimate choice.

That’s always been obvious. Rich and big-spending politicians losing elections is practically a cliché. Think Meg Whitman and Jon Corzine. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson spent millions to make Newt Gingrich a viable candidate for president in 2012. Last November, voters in Colorado defeated Amendment 66, a tax proposition, even though supporters outspent opponents 10 to 1. The list goes on.

Money is obviously important for mounting an effective campaign, and people should be able to spend as much of it as they want in order to get their message out. Freedom of speech means the freedom to speak a lot. But money doesn’t determine the outcome of elections. Voters do. If you don’t like the way they vote, it’s up to you to try to convince them otherwise. That’s what freedom of speech is premised on — individual choice and the right to decide for oneself what ideas to adopt and what policies and candidates to support. In a free society, no one guarantees that you will have the influence you want or enough money to promote your views. All you are guaranteed is the freedom to speak. Whether you speak well or loudly enough is up to you.

2. Advocates of campaign finance laws oppose free speech

That leads to the second thing we can learn from this episode: free speech, free choice, and free thought are exactly what the most ardent supporters of campaign finance laws oppose. You can see that from the fact that no matter what the evidence, they never stop claiming that money “buys” elections. The clear implication is that voters can’t think for themselves; instead, they just passively absorb the views presented in political ads and mindlessly do whatever big spenders tell them to do.

The opposition to persuasion and choice is also evident from the targets that campaign finance zealots choose. Do they focus their wrath on unions, who spend lavishly to support more labor laws that force workers and employers to deal with them? Do they criticize groups that spend lavishly to support more regulation that controls our lives and entitlements that force us to support others?

No. In the campaign finance universe, the lowest rung of hell is occupied by the Koch brothers and groups like the Tea Party, who advocate smaller government and less compulsion. The Kochs have spent decades (using money they earned in legitimate businesses) trying to educate people about free market ideas — ideas that would limit the size and scope of government and promote a freer society in which people get to choose whether and how to deal with one another. Like them or not (I do), the Kochs are trying to convince people to make different choices; they are not trying to force anyone to do their bidding.

But according to the campaign finance world view, the Kochs’ efforts to persuade people to limit government and decrease the use of force to redistribute income and regulate businesses are corrupt and evil. Meanwhile, almost anyone else’s efforts to increase the power of government over our lives, including over our political speech, are virtuous and good. Persuasion: bad; force: good. There are many things to call this view, but pro-freedom is not one of them.

3. Campaign finance laws destroy free speech

Finally, campaign finance laws will destroy freedom of speech if we let them. There are many ways to see this point. One is to pay attention to what supporters of the laws actually say. Another is to look at how the laws operate in practice. I give examples of both in my Breitbart op-ed, but here’s another. According to news reports, while Brat didn’t raise much money, he did get a lot of help from key conservatives like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, and from many groups who supported him on talk radio, Facebook, and Twitter. All of this support could be limited under campaign finance laws, because it is all valuable to candidates. And the proposed constitutional amendment the Judiciary Committee considered last week makes clear that it would cover such “in-kind” contributions and expenditures as well as cash outlays.

That’s standard for campaign finance laws. They have to apply to anything of value that a person might give to a candidate or spend on his behalf, because if they were limited to cash, people could evade them by contributing goods or services instead. And such laws have to apply to all forms of speech, because any form can be used to benefit a candidate or get him elected. That’s why the law in Citizens United applied to a film and why the government’s lawyer admitted during oral argument it would apply to books as well. Applied logically, the laws would have to extend to the media as well. The press typically get an exemption from the laws — so much for the idea that we want to prevent some groups from having “too much influence” — but who counts as the press? Ann Coulter? Bloggers? Facebook users? Oprah, who endorsed President Obama and campaigned for him during the 2008 election? And why does the press get a special exemption? The First Amendment protects everyone’s speech, not just the press’s. My point isn’t that we should limit the press too, but that we should treat free speech as a right, not a privilege granted by government to a special class of citizens. It’s this latter approach that the campaign finance laws embrace and which will destroy free speech if we let it.

Campaign finance laws are censorship, pure and simple. If we actually pay attention to the facts, that point becomes pretty clear.