Friday, January 31, 2014

Bill Maher's Noble Attempt to 'Corrupt' Democracy

According to the New York Times, longtime comedian, talk show host, and Citizens United critic Bill Maher has decided he wants to enter “into the exciting world of outright meddling with the political process.” His plan, apparently, is to pick a ridiculous member of Congress who faces a competitive race in the coming November election…and make him or her lose.

Personally, I think this may be the noblest pursuit ever undertaken by a talking head—unseating incumbent politicians is something to which all Americans can and should aspire. Mr. Maher has the cachet, financial resources, and—it’s been said—humor to literally ridicule someone out of office. Ain’t democracy grand?

The project — which the show is calling the “flip the district” campaign — is intended to get real results, said Scott Carter, the show’s executive producer. Among the criteria for selecting a representative, other than some degree of outrageousness in statements or voting record, is that the member be in a truly competitive race. Those running unopposed will not be selected, no matter how egregious the show’s fans may claim them to be.

There is one small problem, however. Mr. Maher wants to unseat this unlucky representative of the people by using his television show and stand-up act as a platform to run his anti-whomever campaign. Even though he has pledged no money or direct coordination with the challenger-beneficiary of his actions, his independent expenditures—implicitly linked to the corporation he works for, Time Warner’s HBO, by the explicit participation of his show’s executive producer and the presumed use of the show’s budget—necessarily implicate corruption.

In Mr. Maher’s own words, “Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority from his tower in Whoville, said ‘independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.’ which is true, except for ALWAYS.”

No ifs, no ands, no buts. Always.

Now, despite our many policy disagreements, I have no desire to see Mr. Maher imprisoned for criminal corruption—corruption, after all, is a crime in every state in the Union as well as the federal government. And, luckily for Mr. Maher, he won’t actually go to prison for this stunt—one I endorse without a hint of sarcasm—because of…Citizens United.  

You see, the Citizens United Court said that the federal government could not limit the freedom of speech of corporations, so long as they did not give directly to a candidate for office, or coordinate the spending of that money on the candidate’s behalf—thus implying “corruption or the appearance of corruption”—because “[p]olitical speech is ‘indispensable to decision-making in a democracy, and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation.’”

By using his show, Mr. Maher will likely be acting under the aegis of several incorporated entities during this jaunt into the “exciting world” of our political process. And maybe he is cognizant, like Stephen Colbert before him, of the ridiculousness of our campaign and election laws, Citizens United and all. More power to him, I say, regardless of his own level of self-awareness. His proximity to corporate entities shouldn’t prevent him from participating in the process seriously or unseriously.

Truth be told, as  media corporations, Mr. Maher’s employer/production company would likely be exempt from restrictions—as newspapers and the like have been giving political endorsements for years—even before Citizens United. Yet, there should be no distinction between Mr. Maher’s planned shenanigans and those of a business owner in a district that has legitimate beef with his elected official—which is, essentially, what the Court said.

What Mr. Maher intends to do is not a crime, nor should it be, no matter who does it. 

While many Americans take freedom of speech for granted, the ability to openly criticize and mock our leaders is a time-honored and most respectable aspect of the American character. We make fun of politicians as a matter of course, and they deserve every bit of it and more. Only those who lambasted the decision in Citizens United could possibly think it is or should be a crime to lampoon the system while participating in it. To believe that is to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be American and what it means to have the freedom of speech. Never is this freedom more necessary than when we stare into the absurdity of our own democracy.

I have no idea whom Mr. Maher will end up targeting. I hope he is successful, regardless of the party or ideology of whom he defeats, because it’s a grand idea and our politicians need some humbling.

I am glad Mr. Maher has the freedom to do it, and you should be too.

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