Dana Milbank’s op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Stephen Colbert, Karl Rove and the mockery of campaign finance” views Colbert’s political statement as comedic for exposing the limitations the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and state legislatures face in attempting to limit campaign finance contributions. If Milbank’s argument is difficult to follow, it’s not hard to see why.
According to Milbank, recent Supreme Court decisions repealing post-Watergate campaign finance provisions amount to nothing less than contributions to “anarchy.” Yet even in the post-Watergate electoral climate, people were able to avoid restrictions on individual private contributions through creative methods. One such method is ‘bundling’: when people gather contributions from individuals in an organization or community and present the funds as a lump sum political contribution, often under the guise of an honorary title.
So why did private individual contributions continue to operate on the edges of a highly regulated system? Milbank offers an explanation via a quote from campaign finance lawyer Brett Kappel, “it has long been said that the FEC is designed to fail, and now it has.” While the FEC’s failure is evident, the bigger takeaway is that restricting campaign finance is a flawed pretense. In addition, the regulatory methods it leads to, such as using taxpayer funds for political campaigns, are extremely unpopular in North Carolina and politicizes the regulatory bodies making the decisions.
As the court and the bulk of individuals has realized, restricting campaign finance amounts to systematically limiting free speech. Milbank betrays this truth, and the absurdity of campaign finance legislation in the process, by using the terms individual and corporation interchangeably. As the Cato Institute’s Caitlyn McCarthy and Ilya Shapiro noted in their article So What if Corporations Aren’t People, “When individuals pool their resources and speak under the legal fiction of a corporation, they do not lose their rights.”
That truth is inconvenient for Milbank’s class based rhetoric. That is why the conservative American Crossroads PAC, Karl Rove and the small number of extremely wealthy people fueling “the polarization that has brought Washington to a halt” draw his consistent ire. However, making politics nicer or more pleasant is insufficient justification to keep Karl Rove from financing a candidate he deems best for the country or to prevent Stephen Colbert from leveraging his show’s publicity to affect the kind of political change he favors.
So Colbert exposes the failure of campaign finance regulation and Milbank offers the quite original argument that we need more regulation. He would do well to realize that politics are contentious by nature; spending is one of the highest forms of self-expression; and discourse is both diversified and enhanced by broadening the means for individuals across the political spectrum to have their opinions heard.