Politics & Policy

Free Speech Wins in Wisconsin

It is difficult to predict how an election will go, but there is one outcome that is almost always the same: When the Left loses a contest, its response will be to try to change the rules of the game, which is precisely what is happening in the wake of Governor Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin.

The Capital Times, a left-wing newspaper in Madison, is calling for a special session of the legislature to enact new limitations on political participation by individuals, businesses, and nonprofit groups. Such reliable liberal cartoons as Michael Moore and Paul Begala have suggested that the defeat of the campaign to recall Governor Walker was simply a matter of special interests’ purchasing an electoral outcome. Even as the Wisconsin ballots were being tabulated, an Occupy-affiliated group in Illinois was demonstrating in favor of curtailing the free-speech rights of certain individuals and organizations. Not to be outdone, Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats have proposed an initiative that would in effect repeal the First Amendment and empower them to enact wide-ranging restrictions on Americans’ ability to participate in the political process.

#ad#It is true that Governor Walker raised more money to fight the recall campaign than did his Democratic opponent, and that most of that money came from out-of-state supporters. It will always be the case that one contestant in an election raises more money than the other; in some cases, this one among them, that difference may be significant. There are many reasons that this was the case for Governor Walker, an important one being that a great many Americans, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, support his position on the underlying question of limiting the power of government-employees’ unions to extract excessive compensation from taxpayers. Governor Walker attracted the support of many outside groups that wish to see his example in Wisconsin repeated elsewhere. He also argued with great success that the campaign to force him from office was a disruptive and expensive violation of the normal democratic process, and that the state’s recall provision was never intended to be used as a tool to resolve simple policy disputes. Polls showed that many voters who were not inclined to support Governor Walker nonetheless found the prospect of a governor’s being forced from office over a normal political dispute distasteful.

It is both just and healthy for money to play a large role in politics, and those who attempt to taint campaign donations as being somehow shameful do so for reasons of narrow self-interest. As the Supreme Court has confirmed, the right to freedom of speech entails the right to make such arrangements as are necessary to bring that speech to the public: to make a television commercial, for instance, or to place an advertisement in a newspaper. This necessarily entails the right for people to act in association with one another to raise and spend money for the purpose of engaging in political speech. Those who seek to treat political contributions for the furtherance of speech as separate from speech itself would in effect reduce the First Amendment to a formality that protects nothing more consequential than standing on a soapbox on the town square. Ironically, The Federalist Papers, Tom Paine’s pamphlets, and other famous instances of historically significant American political speech, being printed at private expense without full disclosure, would have been subject to rigorous restrictions under this interpretation of the meaning of free speech.

It is in the Left’s interest to minimize the ability of ordinary Americans to participate in the political process. The Left controls the most influential media outlets, the major educational institutions, the unions, the government bureaucracies, and other important institutions. While it is easy to count up the contributions that went to groups supporting Governor Walker in the recall, it is more difficult to put a price tag on the fact that his union critics were permitted to campaign inside high schools (putting fliers into students’ backpacks, among other things) or that rank-and-file workers are dragooned by union bosses into the campaign brigades. What price tag should we attach to the friendly treatment the anti-Walker forces received from the New York Times or MSNBC? Allowing private citizens — even, God help us, rich ones — to participate in the political process by making donations to organizations supporting their causes is a way to level the playing field and to wrest control of the political process from entrenched elites. Those who seek to impose free-speech limitations decry the influence of “the rich,” but we can assure you that the good people who own the New York Times and run the Teamsters are not paupers.

Allowing citizens every possible opportunity to influence the political process is not the antithesis of democracy, as the Left would have us believe, but the fulfillment of it. 

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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