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Mitch Edelman: Democracy needs informed public

Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the case Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus. The facts in this case are clear.

In 2010, the Susan B. Anthony List, a strongly anti-abortion right-wing political action committee, released provably false attack ads against Steve Driehaus, an Ohio Democrat running for re-election to Congress. Moreover, the sponsors knew their ads were lies. SBA had created advertisements claiming that Driehaus had voted to fund abortion, when, in fact, he could not have done so; since 1976, the Hyde Amendment has barred all such expenditures.

Its action ran counter to an Ohio law that states, in part, “no person during the course of a campaign … shall knowingly and with intent to affect the outcome of such campaign … make a false statement regarding the voting record of a candidate for public office,” and Driehaus filed a complaint against SBA. The Ohio election commission found probable cause that the statute had been violated.

SBA appealed the commission’s decision, but its appeal was denied. When Driehaus lost the election, he dropped his complaint, but SBA appealed further to the Supreme Court. The basis for its appeal is that Ohio’s law requiring political action committees to stick to the truth is a form of prior restraint of free speech. There are some more technical issues associated with the case, but the fundamental issue is whether Ohio’s laws constitute unlawful restrictions of protected political speech.

It’s rather ironic that this court, whose decisions on campaign finance opened the floodgates for unregulated and unrestricted campaign contributions, now has to decide whether to overturn a law designed to get those donors to stick to the truth. The case is complicated by the fact that the law in question makes a government commission responsible for deciding whether a political ad is truthful. I believe that no matter how well-intended such a law is, it’s wrong for any government to have the power to decide what is acceptable political speech or what is truthful political speech.

The cure for political lies should be an informed electorate. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” With the easy availability of information on the Internet, online fact-checking sites and unbiased news sources like NPR, verifying claims made in political ads should be easy, but facts seem not to make much difference in forming political opinions.

A study conducted from 2005 through 2006 at the University of Michigan provides evidence that misinformed people, especially political partisans, refused to change their minds when presented with facts that contradicted their beliefs. Distressingly, newspapers are among the least effective sources for getting people to reconsider their opinions.

The news is even worse than that. A study conducted in 2007 by researchers at the University of Illinois suggests that the people most wedded to their opinions were those least informed of the facts, and when presented with facts that contradicted their opinions, the more they clung to them. James Kulinski, the study’s primary researcher, calls this the “I know I’m right syndrome.” He wrote, “It implies not only that most people will resist correcting their erroneous beliefs, but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so.”

With the ability of PACs like Americans for Prosperity to flood radio and TV with accuracy–challenged commercials, the truth has never been in deeper trouble, and absent Jefferson’s informed public, so is our democracy.

Between now and June 24, we have an opportunity to discover the facts about budget, education, the environment and several other important issues. A working democracy demands work from the electorate. We may choose to allow those facts to inform our votes, or we can fall back on party ideology, campaign ads or voting the same way we did the last time and the time before that. We cannot expect effective, responsive, honest government without putting in the work to find effective, responsive, honest candidates. What are you waiting for?

Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at mjemath@gmail.com.

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