The Common Good

On the Incalculable Power of the People

According to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Similarly, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution declares “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise of; or abridging the freedom of speech…” 

While certain opponents exist, most of us agree that free speech is an essential ingredient for a mature democracy, thus it should be encouraged, protected, and further developed. With these thoughts in mind, while we should indeed celebrate the numerous positive outcomes of free speech in the USA, we should also account for its costs, for even the most worthy of causes – such as free speech – bring an assortment of unintended negative consequences.

As our November Election Day draws closer, we are mindful that a defense of free speech has led to millions of dollars directed toward ads, phone calls, literature distribution, and other activities that seek to sway the electorate. As countless studies have shown, the totality of these campaign strategies holds a significant impact on voter decisions and overall turnout. 

In recent times, due to the Supreme Court verdict of January, 2010 (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission), corporations and unions are allowed to make direct campaign contributions, thus the effect is enormous. For instance, American Crossroads (the group associated with Karl Rove) reportedly spent over $9 million in July alone, and the group is said to have nearly $30 million yet to invest. In addition, the Congressional Leadership Fund, NEA Advocacy Fund, and many others hold significant public authority as they influence the hearts and minds of voters throughout the nation. 

In addition to the level of financial resources raised (and spent) during election season, one can also take note of the ongoing monetary influence of our elected officials. As lobbying is protected as an expression of free speech in the USA, the costs of such activity to our democracy is an outpouring of special interest funds that push for specific causes. 

For example, from 1988 until 2012, the following are leaders in lobbyist spending: US Chamber of Commerce ($866,005,680), General Electric ($274,100,000), American Medical Association ($274,017,500), American Hospital Association (225,239,136), and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America ($224,263,920). 

More recently, in excess of $3.3 billion was spent on lobbyist activity in 2012, with top spenders including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($55,350,000), National Association of Realtors ($16,162,290), Blue Cross/Blue Shield ($11,193,532), General Electric ($11,180,000), and AT&T (10,540,000). 

All together, the sheer mass of finances poured into government influence is staggering, and one can safely assume that the recipients are not allowed to forget the strong strings attached to the sources.

In light of the various costs that are associated with free speech in the USA, the time has come for serious financial reforms within our political process. In other words, one can reason that donors are not offering their finances out of unconditional love, thus one may conclude that those placed into office are pressured to display legislative loyalty toward those who have provided assistance. 

In addition, one is deeply troubled to recognize the amount of funds poured into lobbyist related activity, for the result is a disproportionate amount of influence surrounding important issues, such as transportation, defense, agriculture, energy, banking, and of course, campaign finance. As these matters are influenced most intensely by those with the most financial resources, the poor and marginalized are too often forgotten, and as a result, we observe an ongoing spiral into poverty and gross inequality.

In the midst of our current donor-dependent and finance-friendly electoral and legislative system, advocates for common people (and common sense) are on the verge of extinction. 

At this point in our national history, the electorate is relatively absent in public life, because the top earners – and more specifically, a few billionaire families – hold the majority of control upon elections and legislative processes. 

Nevertheless, all is not lost. As people of faith we recognize the dignity, determination, and dynamism of common people, for Jesus himself began with a small group of ordinary disciples and expanded an extraordinary movement that would change the course of history. 

And so, in addition to the spiritual strength one draws from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as Lord, one also takes inspiration from his example of community organizing, public empowerment, and deep commitment to structural transformation. Inasmuch as Jesus faced opposition from powerful elites of the Roman Empire nearly 2,000 years ago, we also must learn how to counter the disproportionate level of power that plagues our present political system. 

In the midst of countless dollars invested into political fundraising and lobbying throughout our nation, the voice of the common people is increasingly left behind, common sense is evaporated, and the screams of the poor and marginalized are mostly unheard. As people who claim to follow the way of Jesus, such realities are not tolerable, and the time for dramatic transformation is upon us.

All together, while free speech has far more positives than negatives, we should recognize and critique its various costs to our democracy. In other words, free speech does not lead to equal influence, and the current disproportionate impact of the wealthy minority has led to a multitude of societal issues for the common majority. 

In many ways, if the current trend of unequal and unjust influence continues, our democracy will deepen its slide into oligarchy, and the livelihoods of the masses will be increasingly subjected to the narrow agenda of a few. And so, as Jesus also lived within a similar era of imperial inequality, the time is upon us to draw strength from God’s Spirit, and thus follow Jesus’ example of reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment. 

Jesus’ disciples were not wealthy or publicly prominent, and yet they possessed what money could not buy, and the Spirit of God led them to follow Jesus into the pits of community dysfunction, and by God’s grace, transform the world around them. Jesus’ grass-roots and Spirit-led movement altered the course of history, and as disciples of this day and age, we are called into the depths of our damaged democracy, for the current situation is not acceptable. 

While speech is free, the influence of common people connected through community is beyond calculation, and such a movement is needed to ensure our government is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people.  

Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, Wis.), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).

Photo credit: Chromobotia/Shutterstock.

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