Democracy, Political Ignorance, and Regulation of Political Speech
George Will in The Washington Post reviewed Ilya Somin’s book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. Both the column and the book are relevant for the federal election law reform topic.
Somin and Will note that reasonable people don’t spend much time trying to understanding the political issues of the day unless that time investment yields benefits. So most people don’t research candidates and their political positions and promises. People who do invest time and effort researching candidates often have special business or personal interests that draw them to particular reform proposals, campaigns, and elections.
Debate and Extemporaneous Speaking students are a sort of weird exception to the rule, a special group in years like this one when the topic for NCFCA debaters is federal election reform. Debate competition and club membership create incentives to learn more about elections and the election process, even when most debaters can’t yet vote!
Times of crisis are an exception too, when recessions or financial crises rouse people to get angry, read newspapers, or watch television news to try to find out who to blame. This reality leads newspapers and television news shows to cast each day’s events as crises deserving the full attention of citizens. Fox News could be called Constant Crisis TV, as could MSNBC and CNN. Turmoil anywhere in the world seems to qualify as a impending or full-blown crisis reported somberly in newspapers and on television.
It’s not new in American history to report the news of the day as crises calling for quick political action. Political pamphlets were widely read during the founding era, for example. Colonial conflicts with British authorities disrupted the day-to-day lives of many, and rumors of further conflicts and abuses by authorities were widely circulated. American farmers and tradesmen took time out to focus on politics because a war for independence would disrupt their lives. Would the turmoil of revolution lead to greater peace and security or to a new and more radical despotism? Many colonials were eager for independence and others for remaining British citizens, and a great many were undecided.
Here is a recording of Orson Welles reading Thomas Paine’s pamphlet The American Crisis. Paine’s call to arms energizes readers and listeners to overthrow British tyranny. I remember coming home from school and hearing this. My father was listening and I was soon enveloped by Paine’s rhetoric and Welles’ voice. By the end I was ready to grab a gun to go out to fight the British.
Was Thomas Paine’s pamphlet printed by a firm registered with Federal Election Commission of the time? Did Colonial authorities supervising political campaigns record and approve the printing press used? Was the printing or distribution subsidized by associations without approved FEC and IRS status? Of course these questions are absurd. Colonial authorities supported freedom of speech and of the press, as long as the content had prior approval.
…what might have become America’s first newspaper, Benjamin Harris’s Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, died in 1690 after only one issue because it ran afoul of the Massachusetts licensing act. Later journalists simply stayed out of trouble by printing innocuous coverage or even giving government officials the chance to approve material before publication. [Source.]
After independence, the new United States welcomed a vibrant and free press. For a few years anyway. Then came the Alien and Sedition Acts and the federal government restricted the freedom of press and speech. Jefferson and his supporters were opposed to what they saw as the expansive federal government taxing, spending, and debt of the Washington and Adams Administrations. Jefferson’s letter called for revolution from time to time to secure the blessings of liberty (The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.):
Wonderful is the effect of impudent and persevering lying. The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, and what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusets? And can history produce an instance of a rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it’s motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20. years without such a rebellion. The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independant 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusets: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order. I hope in god this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted. — Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Paris, 13 Nov. 1787 [Source: The Jefferson Encyclopedia.]