Those who've taken to calling themselves tea partiers are fond of saying that the solution to our nation's problems is to get back to following the Constitution. Good advice. Trouble is, as John Nichols aptly pointed out in a recent column, the constitutional principles to which they profess fidelity often are unrecognizable to the rest of us and would be equally unfamiliar to the framers themselves.
Christine O'Donnell's take on church and state clearly is the most amusing and frequently cited example of this, but the problem does not begin or end with her ignorance of the Establishment Clause. Tea party groups are in league with Citizens United and have come down firmly against campaign finance reform, even opposing more disclosure of campaign donors and election spending. They say any such reform is inconsistent with the First Amendment.
It's not just the tea partiers who've bought in to the notion that we have to choose between preventing government corruption and allowing free expression. The venerable Wall Street Journal falls prey when it asks "Should free speech be curbed in the name of good government?" Some who long supported disclosure now say political transparency and political discourse are incompatible. Even pro-reform commentaries often fall into the trap of believing that keeping our government as clean, open and honest as possible is a goal that might have to be sacrificed because of the Constitution.
The choice that is relentlessly thrust upon us is a false one. It has its basis in a radical reinterpretation of the First Amendment. We were 200 years into the American experiment and the First Amendment was 185 years old by the time the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted those 45 words to mean that money equals speech in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo case.
From that moment on, it's been drummed into us that we must choose between protecting the right to speak and safeguarding our government from corruption and our republic from the onset of plutocracy. At the same time, any thought to whether the right to speak bears any relationship to the ability to be heard in our society has been beaten out of us.
It's not an either-or. The future of the American experiment depends on our ability to break free of the brainwashing we've been subjected to for 30-plus years. It is possible and indeed necessary to combat corruption and have a vibrant marketplace of ideas. It is both possible and essential that we protect the right of each individual to speak and ensure that the First Amendment has real meaning to those who don't possess great riches by seeing to it that the wealthiest in our society aren't the only ones whose voices are heard. We can and must follow the Constitution and reestablish that money is property, not speech. In fact, reestablishing that fact is the single most important way we can honor the framers' design.