On the way back from an outing with my family last weekend, I drove past a grassy road median crammed with campaign signs, sprouting from little sticks stuck in the ground. I say crammed advisedly: The median was perhaps 100 yards long and 20 feet wide, and there were hundreds of signs, packed densely as cornstalks, shouting at me to elect dozens of candidates in red, white, and blue lettering. The effect was numbing, a cacophony of conflicting messages—free speech not in theory, but in practice, bought and sold by the ton.
Money, the U.S. Supreme Court tells us, is a form of speech, which means that we are freer than at any time in history. An astonishing $4 billion was spent on this midterm election, easily a record, with the two parties and their various advocacy groups frantically matching each other’s excesses. And what did voters learn from the toxic blitz of ads? To ominous background music, we were told that some candidates were crooks, thugs, and faux Christian worshippers of the “Aqua Buddha”; we saw other candidates firing rifles and machine guns; one candidate told us that she was not a witch. In many TV markets, stations had to cap the number of political ads, or there would have been no other kind of ads at all. This year’s orgy merely accelerated an existing phenomenon of “independent” group spending, seen in the last three elections, too. And let’s not forget that in 2008, Barack Obama disdained the public-financing system and raised and spent $800 million—$400 million more than John McCain. In 2012, it may take $1 billion to run a credible presidential campaign. The fundraising starts now. Let freedom ring.