This number of The Penguin Post is devoted exclusively to the issues behind the McCain-Feingold Act, a law co-sponsored by Senator John McCain. The original draft of the legislation is important because its intent tells us something about McCain. No attempt is made here to explain the intricacies of the law; follow the links for specific details.
John McCain’s Assault On The First Amendment
Pretend for a minute.
You have some disposable income, and a gripe: you want the 19th amendment to the US constitution repealed. Some of your buddies agree with you. One night you are having some drinks with the regulars, and somebody says, “We ought to do something about it. I know a guy who can make a video for us, cheap, and we could take a few ads in magazines. You know, try to get things moving.” Your group decides to give it a shot, so the video is produced and you pony up to get it on a local cable station.
A vice-chairperson of a feminist group sees your Quixotic video and howls bloody murder to the cable station, which pulls the video. You howl back, and the story is reported on TV and radio. You receive messages that your gonads are about to be traumatically removed, but some folks donate money to your cause. Then a rich guy offers you a couple of million dollars, and soon you are making another video and writing pamphlets and trying to place ads in national magazines. You urge the defeat of a number of office-holders who are quoted as liking the 19th amendment.
Now please answer these questions, and explain your answers: what, exactly, is wrong with all this? Should the government prohibit it, punish you for doing it, or threaten you with punishment if you and your buddies don’t stop?
Finally, should it matter when you and your friends embarked on your crusade?
Oh, you say you want to find out what the 19th amendment is about before you answer. Why? How does it matter? Why should the freedom to advocate unpopular or even goofy political actions be contingent — on anything? Should it matter (and would it matter, in a free country) whether the people who paid your expenses are rich, poor, right- or left-wing, Jewish, US citizens, young or old? What qualities might they have that should matter to the government?
The McCain-Feingold law defines nearly all the above factors as consequential, including the timing of political advertising — and all depending on what type of organization the government considers you and your friends to be.
Those who understand the principles of the Enlightenment will be shocked that anyone might claim your advertising should be vetted, in any way, by the government.
There is, therefore, excellent reason to insist that the Congress of the USA, and one John McCain in particular, are ignorant or worse when it comes to fundamental concepts of Liberty.
By the time McCain-Feingold (properly called The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002) finally got through Congress — it had a hard fight, overcoming several filibusters — advertising had taken on new dimensions and forms, and was increasingly available to small groups of single-issue voters. Everyone could get into the act and challenge the integrity of the most powerful people in government. Desktop publishing, the internet, .mp3 audio files — there were new ways to reach a new audience with opinions. The genie was out of the bottle, and his powers might bring down anyone. The free market of ideas had begun to realize its potential.
That shook the establishment badly. And the establishment reacted in the only way it knows to react: with restrictive, punitive measures.
Rather than institute traditional prior censorship via a Bureau of Truth, Congress went for the money, as it usually does. Control the finances, the legislators reason, and you pretty much control everything the people with that money can do. It’s a bit indirect and ineffective, but popular with the solons. It’s also easier to bamboozle the public if you say, “We have to keep rich people from telling us what to think and how to vote.” Yes, it’s deceitful and unconstitutional (as Davis vs. FEC demonstrated, linked to below), but it’s a line folks who do not subscribe to the PenPo will probably swallow.
So the government relied on the “chilling” effect huge financial penalties impose. The fact that the sources of donations were of instrumental importance does not blunt the point: the government will not tolerate the expression of political opinion by everyone. It can countenance only certain types of groups, conducting themselves according to narrow government-mandated guidelines, in the marketplace of ideas.
It’s a matter of control. People cannot be allowed simply to think up, then write down, and finally distribute ideas any time they want, using money from whatever source. Congress has to make sure it’s all on the up and up.
The PenPo’s favorite quote from the unfree nation of Singapore sums it up (yes, you have seen this one before, but it’s an evergreen): “In our society, you can state your views, but they have to be correct.” In the USA, you can state your views, but if you decide to do it widely, first you have to register, reveal everybody in your organization, expose your donors, and abide by Byzantine regulations that may trap you in spite of your best efforts. The difference between Singapore and the USA John McCain wants to see is not as qualitative as it might appear.
The details of McCain-Feingold are complicated — so much so that if you and your drinking buddies want to repeal that pesky 19th amendment, you should start by hiring some good lawyers. The complexity is hinted at on this web page.
It’s a fact that voters in the USA no longer have the Liberty they did. Why has this happened? Because incumbents do not want to give up power. They fear bad publicity, and they want to lump lies in with truth, package it all up, and trash it. They want to be safe. Like most politicians the world over, they know they can never be safe if people can talk, publish and think freely.
Politicians who want to be safe necessarily fear the Liberty of the little people.
The objections to McCain-Feingold’s arrogant, greedy assault on Liberty have been intense. From an early point in the history of the act,columnists were explaining to the public just what had happened, and what needed to be undone.
As two events show, the wind may have shifted. Look first at this development. Next, note that a very recent decision of the federal supreme court, Davis vs. FEC, a fundamental repair of one of the flaws in McCain-Feingold, has telegraphed the possible intent of the judiciary to water the repressive act down. Hope does exist. That may be whistling past the graveyard — remember that egregious Kelo decision — but why not be optimistic? The Enlightenment still means something to some people.
Unfortunately John McCain is not one of them. His authoritarian convictions damn him. No matter what the supreme court does to McCain-Feingold, the original version of the act provides a glimpse of his ethics. That should deny him the White House.
The Poster Children For McCain-Feingold, And How The Law Discriminates Outrageously Against Those Who Cannot Claim The Title Of “Professional Journalist”
One can’t discuss US federal campaign finance law without eventually thinking of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. What those men tried to do to John Kerry shook the foundations of political power in the USA. Today the popular wisdom, as defined by the news media, tells us that the Swifties knowingly spread lies; theirs is claimed to have been a conspiracy devoid of truth and decency.
John Kerry has at least twice announced publicly that he is now ready to take the Swifties on, prove that they are liars, and expose their villainy. He has yet to follow through.
The Swifties, if they do constitute a deceitful conspiracy, are unusual in that they remain intact after all the controversy and threats. Typically, the larger the conspiracy, the more likely it is to collapse, and the Swifties to this day are still in phalanx formation. Quoting Daniel Pipes, from his excellent book Conspiracy (ISBN 0-684-83131-7):
…conspiracy theories add complicating elements. They require a chain of deception so complex, an intelligence so formidable, and a cast of accomplices so large (and silent) that the whole scheme collapses of its own implausibility.
Which explanation makes more sense: that people who had worked with and for Kerry and believed him unqualified to be president felt they had to blow the whistle on him…or that the great majority of men Kerry served with were right-wing loons who crafted complex lies and pledged themselves to secrecy in order to wreck his campaign?
If the latter were true, somebody in that large group of conspirators would have suffered a crisis of conscience (as those who are no longer young may) and exposed the fraud.
Too, keeping all their stories straight would have been a near impossibility — as the poet said, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive.” Kerry was not capable of retaining a grip on the simplest facts, as his lie about being in Cambodia on Xmas Eve demonstrated. Finally, the Swifties are the overwhelming majority of the men who had an intimate knowledge of Kerry’s adventures in Vietnam. Very few men have come forward to dispute their accounts.
When the Swifties and other political groups (The League of Conservation Voters, MoveOn.org, The Progress for American Voter Fund) were fined for their efforts to sway the voters, the law had been in effect for a while. The Swifties were probably not the first victims of McCain-Feingold; today, however, the Swifties are the poster children for US censorship of political propaganda. They are the horrible example, the monster under the bed, that justifies campaign finance reform. If you can’t silence troublemakers like the Swifties, you can’t run the country.
So several things. First recognize that the tale of the Swifties illustrates a subversive concept: mere but organized citizens can employ news media to promote their agendas, and scare the daylights out of elite politicians. Second, the inevitable corollary is that those mere citizens — who may well be acting as ad hoc journalists, though they are clearly not professionals — can not be trusted by the establishment. Real journalists are safe, but ordinary citizens who claim special knowledge of a candidate’s qualifications are not.
Then, third, see that the political elite invokes sharp-toothed laws to control those it does not trust. Accordingly, obstreperous amateurs are forbidden to participate effectively and fully in public discourse.
If that summation seems less than cogent, look at the issue this way:
The Swifties tried to influence the voters. Mad Mary Mapes and Dan Rather tried to influence the voters. Who was proved not only wrong, but incompetent? Who got fined??
Facts: the news media routinely disseminate information…
…at whatever time they prefer (no matter how close to election day)…
…using money obtained from any sources (which they need not disclose)…
…and with no risk of being fined for misbehavior.
Why should the little people be prohibited from doing the same?
Ask John McCain.