January 29, 2010

A king and his fool

MA election, Citizen’s United ruling present challenges for democracy

If American democracy has as its aim a government of, for, and by the people, then no doubt the people of the country are its king. So then, Stephen Colbert is a Shakespearean fool loose in modern America—a social critic hiding behind an entertaining persona, both amusing and needling his master, a generation of voters that has come to see him as an increasingly legitimate source of news in himself. This generation, currently reaching maturity, must not merely laugh at recent political developments but act on them, lest a new and ever more apathetic American public comes to play the Lear to Colbert’s suddenly tragic Fool.

The first of these is the recent election of State Senator Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy. This has been much ballyhooed, not least by Mr. Colbert himself, who, along with others, was quick to point out the existence of Senator-elect Brown’s nude 1982 Cosmo spread. As considered by mainstream commentators, the Massachusetts special election has been notable primarily in its consequences for health care reform. But fair-minded people can disagree about the merits of the health care bill under consideration in the senate, and thus the relative import of Brown’s ascension. The real consequences of his victory are obvious only when considered alongside other recent events.

For example, the Obama administration is seeking to centralize control over the Democratic Party’s campaigning in light of Brown’s surprise victory and in anticipation of the midterm elections. While the centralization of campaign strategy need not necessarily equate direct political control, the two are hardly unrelated. The move is particularly unappealing given the spectacle of the Republican Party marching in lockstep since 2008—the rigid conformity of its members in congress has gone a long way towards stymieing critical work in government. That the Democrats might become a more effective political force at the cost of party regimentation is not a prospect that should warm the cockles of any heart.

In another disquieting announcement two days after Brown’s victory, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The Court has held for some time that money as a form of political speech is protected by the First Amendment. The novelty of Citizens United was that the Court decided in effect that corporations are people, too, and that they can essentially spend whatever they please on political communications. The majority argued that “the First Amendment does not allow political speech restrictions based on a speaker’s corporate identity.”

In an extensive, passionate, and well-argued dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens offered two seemingly inoffensive observations:

First, that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, declared unconstitutional in the decision, was not an absolute ban but a “time, place, and manner restriction.” Individuals are subjected to these all the time—you have no constitutional right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, for example. BCRA §203 infringed the First Amendment in exactly the same way that gun control laws requiring background checks infringe the Second.

Second, that corporations are not, in fact, people: “Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it.” They cannot vote or run for office. Nabisco does not have the same political rights as you do.

But in yet another bitter 5–4 split, the Court rejected Stevens’ interpretation, exposing the political process to an unprecedented torrent of corporate money. (Ask the Fool if corporations enjoy First Amendment protection: “Yes, if it’s Apple, and they’re saying, ‘Here, Stephen—have a free iPad.’”)

The net effect of these developments is that an individual and his vote matter less, and corporate money and party politics count for more.

The general level of awareness about these trends amongst the student body at Chicago seems quite high—but so too does the level of apathy. In 2008, the Pew Research Center found that only 27 percent of Americans could correctly identify both their U.S. senators. I admit to occasionally quizzing my friends and acquaintances about theirs (a habit that has dampened my popularity at parties). Worse than the fact that the percentage appears, anecdotally, to be even lower than average in the undergraduate demographic is that people are often defensive about their ignorance, arguing that they are entitled to it—politicians are so feckless that students can’t be bothered to care.

King Lear, too, gave up his kingdom to those unworthy of it because it had come to burden him. The Fool spends much of the play haranguing him caustically for this mistake, but his lyric jibes are shot through with concern as Lear begins to lose his mind:

Then they for sudden joy did weep,

And I for sorrow sung,

That such a king should play bo-peep

And go the fools among.

Yet should our own Fool ever break character to comfort us, it will likely be too late. Moneyed interests and hack politicians fill the space left by retreating voters. Perhaps, in the senescence of our youth, we have abdicated.

— Andrew O’Shaughnessy is a third-year in the College majoring in political science.