Norman Rockwell's famous painting “Freedom of Speech” shows a man standing in a town hall meeting expressing his opinions to his friends and neighbors. It is a powerful work of art that not only depicts the man exercising his freedom, but as powerful for its portrait of those who are listening. Rockwell did a superb job showing the eyes of those seated around the man from various perspectives clearly seizing upon every word. That Rockwell painting and the one “Saying Grace” which depicts an elderly woman, praying with a young boy while two men look on with keen interest, are my two favorite Rockwell paintings and hang in my office.
I looked at those Rockwell pictures last week as I read about the most recent Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. This case held that limits of $48,600 by individuals every two years for contributions to all federal candidates violated the First Amendment, as did separate aggregate limits on contributions to political party committees, currently $74,600. The Supreme Court did not address the individual limits on contributions to individual candidates which are currently $2,600 per candidate per election, but it is just a matter of time before those limits are invalidated.
The decision in McCutcheon is not surprising. Chief Justice Roberts led the same four justices in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 decision that struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions. The underlying basis for the Citizens United opinion was the declaration that corporations have First Amendment rights of free speech. It is an appalling turn of events that has disturbing consequences for the electoral process.
The shameless spending of millions of dollars on elections has ruined the electoral process. Billionaires can now spend unlimited amounts of money on slick political advertisements that can stretch the truth, or even ignore the truth, and many voters are hooked like catfish.
Newt Gingrich, a very bright man if you ask him, said last week that “candidates should be allowed to take unlimited amounts of money from anybody, and you would overnight equalize the middle class and the rich.” That might be the dumbest thing that Newt has ever said. In the last election cycle, $3 billion of the $6 billion spent came from 30,000 people. It sounds like Newt is encouraging class warfare.
So I looked at Rockwell's paintings and thought that freedom of speech has been stretched to an incredible limit that should cause us all to pray like the elderly woman and young child in “Saying Grace.” Democracy is for sale. Corporations and wealthy people with special interests now control the political process. The days of the lone citizen standing in the town hall meeting capturing the attention of his friends and neighbors, as depicted in Rockwell's painting, have vanished.
Perhaps I over-dramatize the effect of these Supreme Court decisions, but we have been attacked from within and our ability to fight back has been taken away by the forces of apathy and laziness, which has caused people to either not care, or to be misled by the forces of darkness. We accept as gospel anything sent to us on the Internet and so we spread the falsehoods on Facebook, Twitter and through other social media without taking time to examine the truth. I receive an email almost daily from someone who is revealing some great truth about some politician, usually President Obama, that is either misleading or untrue. I used to fight back with the truth until I realized that most people can't handle the truth, or even worse, don't want the truth.
What is the solution? I think the solution might be a Second American Revolution. The first revolution threw off the shackles of tyranny from England, but we are now once again cast into shackles of tyranny and the question is whether we have the courage and the desire to fight back. The heroes of the First American Revolution crafted new techniques of warfare to defeat England. We have at our fingertips the tools to fight the Second American Revolution.
Information is now at our fingertips and we need grassroots efforts to seize the platform of free speech. It costs nothing to use the Internet to fight back. Let's pledge that we will not vote for any politician that takes money from any source that exceeds a reasonable amount from individuals, corporations or political action committees. Let's quit accepting as gospel anything you read on the Internet, in Facebook, or in emails. Let's quit being apathetic and vote.
Spend a moment and look at the Populist movement in the latter part of the 19th century and you will see a mirror image of what we are confronting today. The robber barons, as the men of Wall Street were called, had seized control of the political process and seized control of the Supreme Court similar to today.
The words of a Populist orator in Topeka, Kan., in 1890 ring true today: “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street… Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags…. The people are at bay, let the bloodhounds of money who have dogged us thus far beware.”
The Populist Party never survived because of pervasive racism. We fortunately live in a new time. Maybe it's time to revive populism. Let's bring power back to the people.
Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.