The Vermont Cynic

Senator Sanders and political speech

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One of the most salient talking points pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders — and his state’s most prominent ice cream manufacturer, Ben and Jerry’s — is that the United States would benefit as a republic to “keep money out of politics” in order to prevent the “billionaire class” from “buying elections/politicians.”

Indeed, Sanders goes so far as to say that the United States is an “oligarchy,” and not a democracy — which is somewhat of an odd statement considering he’s been in the Congress representing one of the most disproportionately powerful states since the ‘90s in this so-called oligarchy.

Sanders attacks all the usual bogeymen and strawmen, from the Koch brothers to the Citizens United decision, usually to the roaring assent of progressives who haven’t yet realized that Democrats take in more campaign money than Republicans: According to the Sunlight Foundation, three of the top five super PAC donors are liberals. According to Politico, the 100 biggest donors of 2014 gave $174 million to Democrats, compared to the $140 million given to Republicans.

In fact, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan organization devoted to illuminating the idiosyncrasies of campaign contributions, the Koch brothers, whom Sanders believes are at the head of the oligarchy, are ranked only 59th in terms of their political generosity in their libertarian conspiracy to control the United States.

What’s odd here is Sanders’ omission of the origin of his campaign funding: unions, for which he has the support of the UAW, the Teamsters Union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Engineers, United Steelworkers and the American Federation of Teachers.

It may seem trivial, given our preconceived stereotype that unions are, at least according to Bruce Springstein, the perennial underdogs — but unions are no small players in the American oligarchic scheme to control the sum of our political affairs.

According to OpenSecrets, six of the top 10 political donors in the United States are unions, who collectively gave 15 times more than the Koch brothers.

What is perhaps most  intellectually schizophrenic of Sanders’ ideology is his habitual criticism of Citizens United, despite the fact that the 2010 decision affirmed the right of unions to participate in the political process alongside corporations.

One should wonder: Why are unions “people,” while corporations are not, if they are both the result of collections of human beings acting through the levers of an organization?

What makes union contributions more legitimate if, in some cases, and in some states, union membership and dues are compulsory, which necessarily requires some Republican union members to forcibly surrender their money to an opposing party? Is that fair?

How do we define a corporation? How can we differentiate the New York Times from, say, Verizon Wireless when it comes to political speech?

And lastly, if the Citizens United decision affirmed the right of a political organization to make a partisan film, what objection could Sanders possibly raise to the idea of an organization promoting its agenda through paid advertisements?

At the heart of the argument lies the contention that the American public is far too stupid to be exposed to paid political speech in favor a specific candidate or policy — so it therefore must be regulated by the more mentally competent. Of course, this role would be filled by Sanders.

Naturally, it’s a condescending sort of reasoning — if the logic is thoroughly parsed through — but it employs a certain Marxian logic: the assertion that Americans live in a state of false-consciousness, wherein one’s thoughts and actions are predetermined by a collection of powerful political and economic actors, and that, antithetical to this state, exist a breed of men, like Sanders, who are conscious of the world and the realpolitik at play.

In reality, the United States isn’t a “Matrix”-like oligarchy, but rather the end result of competing interests, goals and ideologies, which stem from corporations, unions and individuals.

The final composition of the fabric of the American political system is certainly chaotic, yes; but it’s also the beautiful sum of a hyper-diverse set of views and beliefs competing for power and recognition.

Ultimately, Sanders’ preference is to stifle that speech. Just not the speech that advocates for his campaign.

And certainly not the money that funds it.

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The University of Vermont's Independent Voice Since 1883
Senator Sanders and political speech